Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Wild Words of Children's Literature, from "Runcible" to "Rumpus"

This week has seen many encomiums to the great children's book author Maurice Sendak, who died on Tuesday at the age of 83. As it happens, tomorrow marks the two hundredth birthday of one of Sendak's predecessors in playful children's literature: Edward Lear. That got me thinking about the grand tradition of wordplay in books for children, from Lear and Carroll to Seuss and Sendak.

Lear is primarily remembered as a pioneer in English-language literary nonsense, though his creations were not entirely nonsensical. Rather, he injected fanciful neologisms into his light verse — a kind of nonsense seasoning, if you will. Actually, his first Book of Nonsense, in 1846, didn't even have much in the way of nonsense words, instead consisting of limericks depicting people in absurd or outrageous situations. But by the 1871 publication of Nonsense Songs and Stories, Lear had perfected the art of nonsensification. The volume opens with his most famous poem, "The Owl and the Pussycat." (Lear's birthday on May 12 has even been named "International Owl and Pussycat Day" in its honor.) The interspecies love story ends with this stanza:

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.

Even though there is only one bit of pure nonsense here, it's quite memorable (and has even entered many dictionaries): the runcible spoon. What is it? Some have suggested Lear made it up to sound like rouncival, an obsolete word meaning "gigantic, robust." He later illustrated the runcible spoon as having a large round bowl (big enough for a "dolomphious duck" to catch a spotted frog in), but by the 1920s some had interpreted it to refer to a spoon-fork hybrid, much like the modern spork.

The same 1871 volume also had such classics as "The Jumblies," the tale of small creatures who went to sea in a sieve, to the hills of the Chankly-Bore. (My five-year-old son loves that one.) Lear even included a section of Nonsense Botany, with illustrations of such surreal flora as Manypeeplia Upsidownia and Phattfacia Stupenda. He truly hit his nonsensical stride six years later with the publication of Laughable Lyrics, including "The Dong with a Luminous Nose," "The Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò," "The Pobble Who Has No Toes," and "The Quangle Wangle's Hat."

While Lear was busy making up words to delight the children of his friends and patrons, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was doing the same under the pen name Lewis Carroll. In the same year that Lear published Nonsense Songs and Stories, Carroll published Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (the sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland). Contained therein is the best-known example of English nonsense verse, "Jabberwocky." From the opening lines ("'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe") it is clear that Carroll was taking nonsensical neologisms to a new level: almost all of the "content words" (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs) are made-up, with only the "function words" (prepositions, articles, conjunctions, auxiliaries, pronouns) in recognizable English to guide the reader along.

Carroll's preferred mode of word creation is the blending of preexisting words, resulting in what he called "portmanteau words," as in two of his most famous coinages from "Jabberwocky," chortle (from chuckle + snort) and galumph (from gallop + triumph). (Language arts teachers should check out the Wordshop article by Georgia Scurletis on portmanteau words: "How Lewis Carroll Would Feel About Jeggings.") He expanded on portmanteau words in the preface to "The Hunting Of The Snark":

For instance, take the two words "fuming" and "furious". Make up your mind that you will say both words, but leave it unsettled which you will say first. Now open your mouth and speak. If your thoughts incline ever so little towards "fuming", you will say "fuming-furious"; if they turn, by even a hair's breadth, towards "furious", you will say "furious-fuming"; but if you have that rarest of gifts, a perfectly balanced mind, you will say "frumious."

Frumious was Carroll's description of the Bandersnatch, a creature in "Jabberwocky" and "The Hunting of the Snark" that made an appearance this week in a playful nickname for the British actor Benedict Cumberbatch, star of "Sherlock" on the BBC and PBS. When Washington Post television critic Lisa de Moraes called him "Bandersnatch Cummerbund" in a column on Tuesday, many thought her bit of nameplay was a typo. (See my Language Log post for more.)

In the twentieth century, Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, was the preeminent master of nonsense for children. Surprisingly, despite his tremendous output and huge popularity, only one undisputed Seussism has thus far entered the Oxford English Dictionary: grinch, introduced in How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957). It soon came to mean, in the OED's words, "a spoilsport or killjoy; (more generally) an ill-tempered, unpleasant person." Another potential contribution of Seuss to the lexicon is nerd, which appeared as one of many imaginary animals in If I Ran the Zoo (1950). It's debatable, however, whether Seuss's book was actually the source of nerd in its modern meaning; for much more on this, see my Boston Globe column and Word Routes followup.

Sendak, for his part, did not indulge in nonsense on the level of Lear, Carroll, or Seuss, but he certainly had a gift for the evocative use of words. In Where the Wild Things Are (1963), considered by some to be the most beloved children's book of all time, the words are in fact rather spare (he doesn't even bother to name the wild things, as Seuss surely would have). But who could forget Max's command as King of All Wild Things: "Let the wild rumpus start!" The word rumpus, though not Sendak's creation, is perfect for the context. Rumpus first appeared in the mid-18th century, meaning either "noisy dispute" or "commotion." Though its origins are unknown, it was reminiscent of earlier words such as romp and robustious (meaning "robust" or  "violent, boisterous"). Rumpus in turn blended with ruction to create ruckus, while robustious spawned such variants as rumbustious and rambunctious.

This constellation of raucous-sounding words gives Sendak's use of rumpus an extra punch as the name for Max's revelry. (It also helped that Americans had been calling messy play rooms for kids rumpus rooms since the 1930s.) Rumpus suggests pure play tinged with anarchy, and reminds us that the best children's literature is where the wild words are.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.