The Problem of the Runcible Spoon (a bit of Writer Archeology)

Quite a while ago (late January of 2011, in fact) I wrote the following about runcible spoons and what they are and aren’t. At the time there was actually rather less Internet than there is now, and also a bit different flavor of Wild West to it all, so I’ve had to make a few edits and and had to unlink due to the disappearance of one of my reference sites. But imagine my surprise when I was suddenly getting hits from my old WordPress site (which hasn’t been active since 2018) this week. It seems artist and teacher Jenie Yolland has copy-pasted my little research rant because they have a deep and abiding love for Sam Neil’s reading of The Owl and the Pussycat, and an interest in weird table utensils. And all that is utterly fine with me, so, without further ado, here is a slightly updated version of what I said about runcible spoons way back when:

Ah the Runcible spoon, which rose to fame in the Edward Lear poem “The Owl and the Pussycat” is not, in fact, the poet’s invention–no matter what the internet says. How do I know this?

Because I read Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson in college. There’s a scene in the diary wherein Boswell and Dr. Johnson have stopped at an inn while traveling and they must provide their own utensils while they eat from a shared bowl. Boswell is put out that he has only his belt knife and cannot keep up with the prodigious gobbling pace of Johnson who has a “Runcible’s spoon”. This invention of a man named Runcible (no, his first name isn’t mentioned that I recall, but I’d bet on “John” just to be perverse) is described by Boswell as a long handle with a spoon bowl at one end and fork at the other, and one sharpened edge to make a small knife (I’m afraid I’ve forgotten if it was the spoon or the fork that had the sharpened side). Boswell is interested in Runcible’s invention and though Johnson finds it a bit of a challenge, it’s a huge step up from making do with a belt knife and fingers as Boswell has to do.

Johnson predates Edward Lear by a considerable time. That the internet has widely reported the story of the Runcible spoon as an invention of Lear’s does not, in fact, make it true. It’s the invention of Runcible.

And although it is sometimes mislabled a “spork,” it is, in fact, a variation on Mr. Runcible’s spoon. (The Slightly Less Than Official Spork Page claims “’Spork’ is the colloquial term for `Runcible Spoon’” but the spork doesn’t usually have a sharpened edge and there’s no knife edge on the official patent design.) The original must have had a longer and more distinct handle, but still… a spoon bowl, fork tines, and one sharpened edge…. Plainly a Runcible’s spoon. You can imagine how swank Dr. Johnson must have been to own such a marvel in the Eighteenth Century. Very, very swank! No sharing germs with the peons for Dr. Johnson! No burning his fingers snatching bits of meat out of the stew pot with his unaided hand.

And, in spite of what my parents told me, a central-pivot salad tongs is also not a Runcible spoon. Just isn’t. Sorry. Not to mention how could the Owl and Pussycat ever have eaten “mince and slices of quince” with a salad tongs? Ridiculous. But with a Runcible spoon? Easy as… well, as pie. Om nom nom!

Also, the poem wouldn’t have rhymed very well with “spork.”

A pair of silver-colored salad tongs, which look like a giant pair of scissors with a spoon bowl and a large fork where the blades ought to be