5 Jan

They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

l. 27-33, The Owl and the Pussycat, Edward Lear, 1871

The word runcible is remarkable for a singular reason – namely, that has no meaning whatsoever. Our friend Mr. Lear quite liked his nonsensical creation; his verse talks also of runcible cats and geese, and a dashing runcible hat. As one Guardian reader plainly put it: “Runcible objects exist no more than pobbles or feline-hiboutic matrimony.” And he is correct. Nevertheless, the word has earned itself a Wiktionary entry. Lear’s nonsense word is but a part of a fine tradition of nonsense words and wit-smitten wordplay that has coloured the English language. His contemporary, Lewis Carrol, penned a fine example of nonsense poetry with Jabberwocky, a text which lovers of language have cut their teeth on ever since.

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

l. 1-4 (and, for that matter, l. 29-32), Jabberwocky, Lewis Carrol, 1872

Wordplay is found throughout languages, cultures and time periods; Virgil and Homer used wordplay in their poetry and the complexities of Mandarin have lent that language to wordplay. As a result of the strong traditions of wordplay in English, however, the use of nonsense words is rather more common in English than in other languages. The century since has certainly not been lost to this tradition – in literature, the best example might by Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, in which language plays a pivotal role in developing the text’s esoteric subtleties.

…while kinderwardens minded their twinsbed, therenow they stood, the sycomores, all four of them, in their quartan agues, the majorchy, the minorchy, the everso and the fermentarian with their ballyhooric blowreaper, titranicht by tetranoxst, at their pussycorners, and that old time pallyollogass…

III.3, Finnegans Wake, James Joyce, 1939

A Bit of Fry & Laurie, The Two Ronnies and the work of Monty Python all provide examples of nonces, nonsense and wordplay in television; after all, whoever could forget the Cheese and Tommy-to Toastie, or Eric the half-a-bee? But now it is bed time.

A most runcible new year to you all.



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