I just love words, silly words, proper words, and obscure words. I also love learning new words and finding the derivation of olde worlde sayings – these things brings me joy. And joy is something I’d like to share with you in these weird times.
The other night I was watching the wonderful Sam Neill (actually Nigel John Dermot Neill- who knew?) reading this fun poem “The Owl and the Pussycat” by Edward Lear.
You can find out more about the wonderful New Zealand actor Sam Neil on his website, twopaddocks.
The “interwebs” will have you believe that Edward Lear invented the “runcible spoon”, but author (of Greywalker series) and well-read blogger, Kat Richardson has this plausible explanation for why Lear didn’t invent the word but actually adopted the word from a chap called … Runcible.
Kat Richardson’s blog explanation runs thusly:
“I read Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson in college. There’s a scene in the diary where Boswell and Dr. Johnson have stopped at an inn while traveling and they must provide their own utensils while they eat from a shared bowl. Boswell is put out that he has only his belt knife and cannot keep up with the prodigious gobbling pace of Johnson who has a “Runcible’s spoon”. This invention of a man named Runcible (no, his first name isn’t mentioned that I recall, but I’d bet on “John” just to be perverse) is described by Boswell as a long handle with a spoon bowl at one end and fork at the other, and one sharpened edge to make a small knife (I’m afraid I’ve forgotten if it was the spoon or the fork that had the sharpened side). Boswell is interested in Runcible’s invention and though Johnson finds it a bit of a challenge, it’s a huge step up from making do with a belt knife and fingers as Boswell has to do.”
Interestingly also, a “spork” is, in fact, a variation on Mr. Runcible’s spoon. (The Slightly Less Than Official Spork Page claims “Spork’ is the colloquial term for Runcible Spoon but the spork doesn’t usually have a sharpened edge and there’s no knife edge on the official patent design.) The original must have had a longer and more distinct handle, but still… a spoon bowl, fork tines, and one sharpened edge – plainly a Runcible’s spoon. You can imagine how swank Dr. Johnson must have been to own such a marvel in the Eighteenth Century. Very, very swank! No sharing germs with the peons for Dr. Johnson! No burning his fingers snatching bits of meat out of the stew pot with his unaided hand.”
An alternative theory put forward by the Oxford English Dictionary (and this quote comes from here, suggests that the word is actually “a fanciful alteration of ROUNCIVAL.” A Rouncival is a variety of pea, known since at least the sixteenth century, and supposedly, possibly, originating in Roncesvalles (Roncevaux) in the Pyrenees.
This theory would be less desperately nonsensical (or maybe non-sequiteurial) if there was ever a spoon made specifically for the eating of peas, wouldn’t it?
‘Rouncival’ (or ‘Rouncefall’) is a variety of pea that derives its name from the fact it was apparently first grown in England in the garden of the chapel of St. Mary of Rounceval, at Charing Cross, London.
The chapel was an offshoot of the Roncesvalles abbey in Navarre and it is believed the rouncival pea was brought to England by the Augustinian monks who established it.
It is first described in Thomas Tusser’s Hundreth Good Pointes of Husbandrie (1570), an immensely popular poem detailing information about housekeeping and farming. Here, Tusser sets out advice for what to do in January, suggesting that ‘better time there is not’ for Rouncival peas:
Dig Gardain, stroy malow now may ye at ease,
and set (as as a deintie) thy runcyfall pease.
“Runcible” is therefore perhaps less of a completely made up nonsense word by Edward Lear than we first thought. In his verse self-portrait, The Self-Portrait of the Laureate of Nonsense, it is noted that “he weareth a runcible hat“.
Other Lear poems include mention of a “runcible cat“, a “runcible goose” (in the sense of “silly person”), and a “runcible wall“.
The Guardian newspaper wrote a column asking people what they believed runcible to mean and two replies completely contradict each other and are quite interesting.
- MANY of Edward Lear’s poems have nonsensical references to his daily life. The ‘runcible’ spoon was Lear’s way of teasing his friend, George Runcy. Runcy had very modern views (for his day) on bringing up children and believed, among other things, that they should be encouraged to feed themselves as early as possible. To this end George Runcy designed a spoon that had the hollow part for food curved towards the handle at 90 , thereby enabling the child to insert the spoon into its mouth end-on, without having to bend its wrist. This made eating with the spoon much easier and Runcy used the spoon to teach all of his children to eat. This type of spoon can still be bought in department stores, but George Runcy, to my knowledge, was never credited with its invention.
Merlin Shepherd, Penarth, S Glamorgan
- At the time Edward Lear wrote his nonsense verses, he was employed by the Earl of Derby at Knowsley Hall. He fastened upon the adjective ‘runcible’ for the type of spoon to be used by the Owl and the Pussycat from the character Robert Runcie, who was the Chief Under Butler at the hall in 1832. Runcie was responsible for cleaning the silver spoons. This is alluded to in an obscure footnote to C J Jackson’s, the Spoon and its History, in Archaeologica 1892.
C C A Glossop, Worcester.
This image is Edward Lear’s own drawing of The Owl and the Pussycat. No runcible spoon in this famous drawing, though …
Today, you can purchase a “runcible” spoon for sale on Ebay and at the time of writing the price is a whopping AU$516 or UK GBP 291.50, that seems like a lot for a spoon.
A Splayd (plural ‘Splayds’) is an eating utensil combining the functions of spoon, knife and fork. It was created by William McArthur in the 1940s in Sydney, Australia. It is similar to the American spork. There are several manufacturers.
In addition to an overall spoon shape with four fork tines, it has two hard, flat edges on either side, suitable for cutting through soft food. They often have a geometric rather than rounded bowl, with two longitudinal folds in the metal.
They are often used for eating chopped foods like rice-based curries, in place of a chopsticks or knife and fork.
The UK licensee for the manufacturing and distribution of “Splayds” during the 1970s was the famous Viners of Sheffield. At that time they were one of the biggest cutlery manufacturers in Great Britain according to my Wikipedia search. It was suggested as the perfect cutlery for use whilst watching television.
A spork, (a portmanteau of spoon and fork), is a hybrid form of cutlery taking the form of a spoon-like shallow scoop at one end with two to four fork tines at the other end. Spork-like utensils, such as the terrapin fork or ice cream fork, have been manufactured since the late 19th century; patents for spork-like designs date back to at least 1874, and the word “spork” was registered as a trademark in the US and the UK decades later. They are used by fast food restaurants, schools, prisons, the military and backpackers. The word spork obviously combines spoon and fork. It appeared in the 1909 supplement to the Century Dictionary, where it was described as a trade name and “a ‘portmanteau-word’ applied to a long, slender spoon “having at the end of the bowl, and projections resembling the tines of a fork”.
Now all that remains to be invented is the addition of chopsticks into this mix. Sporkfetick anyone? Or perhaps Chosplayde? Below you can see a Japanese version of a splade.
Anyway to sign off for today, here’s a fun limerick from Edward Lear – master of the nonsense limerick – purely for your reading pleasure.
There was an old person of Putney,
Whose food was roast spiders and chutney,
Which he took with his tea,
Within sight of the sea,
That romantic old person of Putney.
What’s next?boswell cutlery edward Lear fork greywalker kat richardson knife Oxford English Dictionary poly olbion runcilbel Sam Neill samuel johnson splade spoon spork the owl and the pussycat two paddocks