A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What's a runcible spoon?

November 8, 1996

Dear Cecil:

What's a runcible spoon?

Dear Theo:

I can't believe you have to ask this. A runcible spoon is a utensil suitable for runciation. This of course is in contrast to an irruncible spoon, which one runciates at one's peril.

The first practical application of runcification was in 1871 when Edward Lear noted that a runcible spoon could be used by owls and pussycats. ("They dined on mince, and slices of quince, / Which they ate with a runcible spoon," from The Owl & The Pussy-Cat.)

In subsequent years Lear applied the principles of runcibility in other fields:

"He has gone to fish, for Aunt Jobiska's Runcible Cat with crimson whiskers!" (1877). "His body is perfectly spherical, / He weareth a runcible hat" (1888). "What a runcible goose you are!" (1895). "We shall presently all be dead, / On this ancient runcible wall" (1895).

Satisfaction with the early results of runcilation led Lear and his admirers to overlook the fact that there were many unanswered questions about the runciatory process, e.g., what it was. Lear's contemporaries recognized that runcility was one of those conditions partaking of the ineffable, meaning it had the same connection to reality as scroobius pips and Gromboolian plains and about a thousand other Learisms — namely none.

But that wasn't good enough for the literal-minded folk of the 20th century. In the 1920s one self-appointed runciologist announced that "a runcible spoon is a kind of fork with three broad prongs or tines, one having a sharp edge, curved like a spoon, used with pickles, etc. Its origin is in jocose allusion to the slaughter at the Battle of Ronceveaux, because it has a cutting edge."

At first blush this made perfect sense. One can think of numerous eating instruments named in lighthearted reference to scenes of mass death.

But skeptics pointed out that Lear's drawings of runcible spoons gave no indication of tines or cutting edges. Also the use of a runcible spoon for the pedestrian purpose of eating pickles seemed at odds with the refined original menu of mince and quince. And why should one require a spoon with a cutting edge for quince that, Lear tells us, has already been sliced?

Modern students of runciosity believe that while it may have been inspired by the word "rouncival" (apparently meaning gigantic), runcibilization as we know it today was the invention of Edward Lear.

But the runcible-spoon-as-pickle-fork idea has taken firm root. One sighs, but what can you do? I expect the discovery of the Bong-tree any day.

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