Sunday, 9 February 2014

A Runcible Spoon

They dined on mince, and slices of quince,

Which they ate with a runcible spoon.

Edward Lear, ‘The Owl and the Pussy-Cat’.


A friend of mine has just completed a book about quinces. (Κυδώνια in Greek.) There will of course be recipes, but if it’s anything like her other books there will be history, and pictures, and tales of odd things one can do with them. (The ones in this island are about the size, weight, and hardness of hand grenades, so would make good missiles.) She has been wondering about a title so I suggested ‘The Runcible Spoon’. She doesn’t think the publisher will wear it, but I hope she tries him or her: publishers are interested in money, in fact it’s become difficult to find one who is interested in anything else, and a quirky title can mean increased sales.

But how many people, without looking it up, can tell you what a ‘runcible’ spoon might be? (Microsoft Word’s spellcheck doesn’t recognize it, but Microsoft Word has the vocabulary of an overweight American teenager). Well obviously a runcible spoon is one that can be runced. Not one you runce with; that would be a runcing spoon. A spoon that can be runced, just as edible things are those that can be — er — edded. (That does work; it’s just you have to go through Latin. Purists who object to Latinate words in English can say ‘Eatable’. Percy Grainger, the composer of ‘Easy listening’, vaguely classical-sounding stuff carried his objection to Latinate words so far as to insist on ‘farness’ rather than ‘distance’. But he was a nasty man: his greatest crimes of course were to write ‘Elizabethan Serenade’ and ‘An English Country Garden’ but he was also a sadist who liked to beat his wife. Not just spank her, which might have been fun for both of them, but actually beat her up. But I digress…)

In fact ‘Runcible’ is not one of those adjectives formed from verbs. (Gerunds? Gerundives?) Runcible is, according to one authority, an alloy used in Victorian times for making cheap cutlery.

I can’t offhand think of other words that, misleadingly ending in ‘Ible’ or ‘Able’ look as if they should be adjectival but are in fact substantive. But in general mistaken back-formations, as in ‘Runce’ from ‘Runcible’, can often be fun. One can be ‘Overwhelmed’, but until recently ‘Underwhelmed’ (as in ‘The literary quality of Dan Brown’s books is quite underwhelming’) was a joke. It is becoming more and more common and has probably made it into the OED by now, but anyone wanting to learn good English is advised to avoid recent editions of the OED like the plague, or the BBC.

How about ‘Couth’, from ‘Uncouth’? Can one have a Couth Youth as one has Uncouth ones? One rarely hears the word, if it is one, and not just because there are more uncouth than couth youths.

I don’t know if people like these linguistic oddities. I do, and it’s my blog.   

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