It is difficult to let Edward Lear’s birthday (yesterday) pass without some fun with his ‘runcible spoon’. This utensil used by the Owl and the Pussycat to eat their mince and slices of quince is somewhat of a mystery. It seems obvious to me – obvious that it is a mystery, that is. Edward Lear wrote Nonsense, folks. He wrote recipes for Amblongus Pie and Gosky Patties (thanks, Karen), for Goodness Sake!
Linguists find it hard to believe that words can simply be invented. Words evolve, doncha know, from pre-existing words? The theory pronounced by the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the word is “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 nonsequiteurial) if there was ever a spoon made specifically for the eating of peas, wouldnt it? Has there ever been such a spoon?
The theory also does not explain Lear's runcible hat, cat, goose – and wall. How are cats, geese, and walls related to peas. Or did they originate in the Pyrenees too?
What I love about runcible spoons is, that they may first have been mentioned by Lear (in 1871) in a nonsense rhyme, but they soon became real spoons. The OED admits that, after Lear “in later use applied to a kind of fork used for pickles, etc., curved like a spoon and having three broad prongs of which one has a sharp edge.” Folk etymology, I love it!
Should you get your hands on some genuine rounceval peas, I suggest this recipe for them:
Shell a quart of peas, cut a large Spanish onion small and two cabbage or Silesia lettuces. Put them into a stewpan with half a pint of water, a little salt, pepper, mace, and nutmeg, all beaten. Cover them close and let them stew a quarter of an hour. Then put in a quarter of a pound of fresh butter rolled in a little flour, a spoonful of catcup [catsup] and a piece of burnt butter about the size of a nutmeg. Cover them close, and let it simmer a quarter of an hour, observing frequently to shake the pan. Have ready four artichoke bottoms fried, and cut in two, and when you pour the peas with their sauce into dish a lay them round it.
The Young Woman’s Companion, or, Frugal Housewife ... (Manchester, 1813)
Quotation for the Day.
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.
A limerick by Edward Lear.