Monday, April 4, 2011

The Spoon That Defies Explanation

For this week, a bit of a classic among lovers of strange and wonderful words.
runcible (rən(t)-sə-bəl) — adjective: a word that, on its own, doesn’t necessarily mean anything.
Okay, right off the bat, that’s a lie. Merriam-Webster defines a runcible spoon as “a sharp-edged fork with three broad curved prongs,” which basically means it’s a vaguely spork-like thing. But that’s not to say that runcible means anything on its own. Edward Lear coined the word in “The Owl and the Pussycat,” in the lines “They dined on mince and slices of quince, / which they ate with a runcible spoon.” He used it again in later works, including “Twenty-Six Nonsense Rhymes and Pictures,” in which he wrote, “The Dolomphious Duck, / who caught Spotted Frogs for her dinner / with a Runcible Spoon” and illustrated it with this:

Clearly, Mrs. Dolomphious is maneuvering some sort of ladle that doesn’t match the Merriam-Webster definition, and that’s because Lear didn’t ever decide that a runcible spoon was anything in particular. In fact, he also used the word to describe a cat, a goose and a wall. Other people have tried to assign meaning the word, however, at least in the eating utensil sense. Among other suggestions offered more or less facetiously:

  • a pickle fork
  • a spork
  • a grapefruit spoon
  • “a horn spoon with a bowl at each end, one the size of a tablespoon and the other the size of a teaspoon”
  • a spoon designed by Lear’s friend, George Runcy, intended for use by infants
  • some vague object that references Robert Runcie, who was apparently a butler noted for polishing silver spoons
  • a spoon resembling a sword used in the Battle of Roncevaux Pass, Roncevaux being the etymological source of runcible

And if the seeming overlap with spork didn’t confuse the matter enough, there also exist knorks (knife-forks), splayds (spoon-blades) and foons (fork-spoons, as opposed to spoon-forks). Where, I wonder, are the spives and knifoons?

A simple Google image search for this thing gets you all sorts of bowl-shaped forks and pointy spoons, most with more than three prongs and many of which could probably also be sporks, knorks and foons. In the end, if someone asks you to fetch the runcible spoon, they probably are referring to what Merriam-Webster says the word means. Except when they’re not.

Sources: World Wide Words, Wikipedia

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