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What's a runcible spoon?

--Theogr, via AOL

I can't believe you have to ask this. A runcible spoon is a utensil suitable for runciation. This is in contrast to an irruncible spoon, with 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 nocturnal species such as your owls and your 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 un-answered 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.

At one point in Walden, Henry David Thoreau, having grown bored with making the reader feel grubbily materialistic if he cannot carry all of his belongings on his back, moves on to rub the reader's nose in his puny intellectual attainments: "I confess I do not make a very broad distinction between the illiterateness of my townsman who cannot read at all, and the illiterateness of him who has learned to read only what is for children and feeble intellects. We should be as good as the worthies of antiquity, but partly by first knowing how good they were. We are a race of tit-men, and soar but little higher in our intellectual flights than the columns of the daily paper."

Assuming Hank Dave was not channeling Russ Meyer or Howard Stern, what the devil did he mean by "tit-men"? The context suggests he meant men preoccupied by life's inessentials--souls who lie in the gutter but fail to look up at the stars, or some such. Maybe he's comparing us with birds. But as I can't find the phrase in any old dictionaries I can't be sure. Would you be good enough to shine the refulgent beacon of your nonesuch intelligence upon this umbrageous niche of Thoreauvia?

--David English, West Somerville, Massachusetts

Ooh, David, I love it when you talk dirty like that. This is a topic I will be happy to decrepusculate. I will even forgive Henry D.'s slighting reference to "the columns of the daily paper." Clearly he foresaw even then that truly mind-expanding journalism would be carried only in weeklies.

The reason you couldn't find "tit-men" in any old dictionaries is that you can't use just any old dictionary. For industrial-strength knowledge you want the Oxford English Dictionary, which tells us that a "titman" is "the smallest pig, etc. of a litter; hence, a man who is stunted physically or mentally; a dwarf, a 'croot.'"

So now you know. A tit-man (titman, whatever) is a croot.

Reminds me of a story. Two mice are in an English music hall watching a chorus line. "Lovely legs, haven't they?" says the first mouse. "Oh, I don't know," says the other. "I'm a titmouse myself."

Is there something you need to get straight? Cecil Adams can deliver the Straight Dope on any topic. Write Cecil Adams at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611; E-mail him at cecil@chireader.com; or visit the Straight Dope area at America Online, keyword: Straight Dope.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Slug Signorino.

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