Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 15, No. 217.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
 From: Willard McCarty <email@example.com> (79)
 From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Francois Lachance) (84)
Subject: Re: Runcible spoon and Boswell
Date: Mon, 03 Sep 2001 09:05:25 +0100
From: Willard McCarty <email@example.com>
Francois Lachance asked if there were any runcibles in humanities computing
(the OED entry follows). (Funny, I would have sworn that a "runcible spoon"
was the kind with a serrated edge used for eating grapefruit....) By which
I take it that he means to ask, are there any terms invented out of thick
air (thanks, Francois, for that observation) in humanities computing? In
computing as a whole, I'd think the answer would be to point to The (New)
Hacker's Dictionary, a.k.a. The Jargon File, indeed to the characteristic
and playful linguistic behaviour of propeller-headed people; for a possible
example, see below. I would be delighted to learn that some socio-linguist
or other had studied this behaviour, at least to have given us a catalogue
with commentary. I hope not to discover that we are more sober types, whose
dignity keeps us from being thus playful. Geoffrey Nunberg's observations
about online academic exchanges (in "Farewell to the Information Age", The
Future of the Book -- read it tonight) give me reason for hope.
So, please, let us have some runcibles.
I wonder further, about my own "error" in assigning meaning to this term.
Is there some truth in Humpty Dumpty's declaration, that "When I use a
word... it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less"?
Does the demi-mondish world of (academic) e-chatter give a kind of critical
mass to the formation of meanings around sequences of sound?
P.S., Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898), lists "Runcible Spoon
(A)" as "A horn spoon with a bowl at each end, one the size of a
table-spoon and the other the size of a tea-spoon. There is a joint midway
between the two bowls by which the bowls can be folded over"
(http://www.bartleby.com/81/14638.html). Lear's usage predates the
publication of this book, but not by much.
The Free Online Dictionary of Computing points out that "runcible" was the
name given to an early system for mathematics on the IBM 650
(http://foldoc.doc.ic.ac.uk/foldoc/foldoc.cgi?RUNCIBLE) -- one of the first
machines I had physical contact with -- hence "Fortruncible", "A cross
between Fortran and RUNCIBLE"; see Donald E. Knuth, "Runcible ---
Algebraic translation on a limited computer" (CACM 2.11, 1959, pp. 18-21).
Unfortunately in the article Knuth does not mention why this name was
chosen; perhaps that secret is kept in the Computing Center staff
publication he cites, Runcible I (vol. 1, series 5), of the Case Institute
of Technology, where he was a student at the time. This was Knuth's second
publication, his first was in Mad Magazine (1957), on a system of weights
and measures he designed. According to one of Knuth's students, Mad
"inexplicably declined" his second article, on Runcible (Mathematical
Writings, para. 18, "Excerpts from class, November 4", 1987, Stanford
RUNCIBLE. A nonsense word used by Edward Lear in runcible cat, hat, etc.,
and esp. in runcible spoon,
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. The illustrations
provided by Lear himself for his books of verse give no warrant for this
1871 E. LEAR Owl & Pussy-Cat in Nonsense Songs, They dind on mince, and
slices of quince, Which they ate with a runcible spoon. 1872 More Nonsense
235 The Dolomphious Duck, who caught Spotted Frogs for her dinner with a
Runcible Spoon. 1877 Laughable Lyrics 24 He has gone to fish, for his Aunt
Jobiska's Runcible Cat with crimson whiskers! 1888 Nonsense Songs &
Stories (ed. 6) 8 His body is perfectly spherical, He weareth a runcible
hat. 1895 Ibid. (new ed.) 76 What a runcible goose you are! Ibid. 77 We
shall presently all be dead, On this ancient runcible wall. 1926 N. & Q. 11
Dec. 430/2 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
Roncevaux, because it has a cutting edge. Ibid., Does a runcible hat mean
one of the sort called a trilby? In that case a runcible spoon may be one
with prongs or teeth. 1949 PARTRIDGE Name into Word 373 He weareth a
runcible hat. Thus Edward Lear in Self-Portrait, where the hat is a
topper with a sharp rim. Now, a runcible spoon (Lear, 1871) is not a
spoon at all but a pickle fork, broadly and triply tined, one tine being
sharp-edged and curved like a spoon... The word runcible has been built in
the architectural style of fencible; indeed, it may constitute a blend of
Roncevaux and fencible (capable of defending). 1969 R. & D. DE SOLA Dict.
Cooking 195/2 Runcible spoon, not a spoon but a fork with three broad
curved prongs, used for serving appetizers. 1979 Washington Post 25 Mar.
N6/2 A runcible spoon..is a large, slotted spoon with three thick, modified
fork prongs at the bowl's end, and a cutting edge on the side.
Dr Willard McCarty / Senior Lecturer / Centre for Computing in the Humanities / King's College London / Strand / London WC2R 2LS / U.K. / +44 (0)20 7848-2784 / ilex.cc.kcl.ac.uk/wlm/
-------------------------------------------------------------------- Date: Mon, 03 Sep 2001 09:06:51 +0100 From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Francois Lachance) Subject: Re: Runcible spoon and Boswell
Dear seekers of runcible origins,
The "runcible" question provides a nice marker of the availability of networked resources. Following Professor Corre's lead, I conducted a WWW search. Found a story outlining the racist origins of the "spork" [an implement meant to displace chopsticks in occupied Japan]. Also found a reference in Brewer's _Dictionary of Phrase and Fable_ describing the spoon thus:
A horn spoon with a bowl at each end, one the size of a table-spoon and the other the size of a tea-spoon. There is a joint midway between the two bowls by which the bowls can be folded over
Of course, the edition of Brewer's dictionary postdates Lear's poem. A trip round to a library catalogue online would be necessary to discover publication history.
A commerical site suggests origins beyond Lear...
What is a Runcible Spoon? That is the question asked most often by people coming into our kitchen and tableware store. Our name is borrowed from one of our favorite childhood poems, The Owl and the Pussycat, by Edward Lear [...] But a Runcible Spoon dates back further in English history to Samuel Johnson. It was noted by his traveling companion, Boswell, that the two shared meals using a utensil fashioned from the horn of an animal. This ancient utensil served as a knife, fork, and spoon and was known as a Runcible Spoon.
An online search for Boswell AND Johnson AND spoon does not turn up at present the elusive runcible. 18th century euro-specialists may be of some assistance.
The connection to Roncesvalles suggest by Professor Corre may come by way of "pease"
PEASE. Hannah Glasse refers to Roncival and Winged Pease, 165. The former have been tentatively identified as marrowfat peas by Lovelock (1972), who also cites the probably apocryphal explanation of the name as a corruption of the French name Roncesvalles. Winged peas are not mentioned by the authors of Adams Luxury and Eves Cookery (1744), a full survey of the kitchen garden in which peas are given their due of attention; nor in the chapter on peas in Lisle (1757), although his observations are very precise and he refers to numerous varieties. But they do appear as winged crown or rose pease in the list of 20 varieties given by Switzer (1727), and Rouncivalls had also been mentioned by Cotgrave (1611) as being the same as Pois ramez. Elizabeth David suggests (private communication) that it was the rames or branches which made these peas rouncival, and that the name may be connected with ronce or ronciata (wild, brambly - like the sort of tangle into which pea plants can get). She wonders whether, later, they could have inspired Edward Lear's runcible spoon. (Glasse, 1747)
The above is the entry from a glossary prepared by Prospect Books for its facsimile reprints or transcripts of English cookery texts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. No electronic edition availible yet, I believe.
Glasse's book was frequently attributed to Ben Johnson. However, she was a real person and lived in Southampton Row, Bloomsbury. Of this edition, less than 15 copies are known to exist. A second printing also appeared in 1747, of which there are only about five known copies.
Richard L. D. and Marjorie J. Morse Department of Special Collections at Kansas State University. http://www.lib.ksu.edu/depts/spec/rarebooks/cookery/glasse1747.html
Far from the Apostle's spoons of Professor Corre's suggestive posting but certainly on track for demonstrating how a single lexical unit can open up a world of discourse, a network of possibilities, very much what McGann would call the "recursive interplay of the fields". Whether the referent exists in actuality or merely as a counter-factual, the points pointed to by the signifier string together less as beads for counting "penance" as the sign-ful joy for re-counting words and dates in Spain and beyond.
> No such thing as a runcible spoon? I realise that Edward Lear used the > word "runcible" in his uniquely silly way, but I always understood that > "runcible" was a corruption of "Roncevalles," a village in northern Spain > from which the spoon came. Sorry I have no documentation for this, but I > connect it in my memory with the Apostle spoons that used to be popular. > Seems to me that those who deny the existence of the runcible spoon should > be forced to join the procession of penitents which takes place there > still on the Wednesday before Whitsun, and as their penance read the > history of Charlemagne. > > Alan D. Corre > Emeritus Professor of Hebrew Studies > University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee > http://www.uwm.edu/~corre/
What all this might have to do with Humanities Computing is perhaps an example of the the hypertextuality that links communities of interest which criss-cross in interesting ways.
-- Francois Lachance, Scholar-at-large http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~lachance/ivt.htm per Interactivity ad Virtuality via Textuality
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