You’d think it would be easy to invent nonsense words. After all, the real lexical bummer usually rests in the burden of definition: your average neologism has to mean something. Nonsense words, on the other hand, are not merely devoid of but entirely divorced from meaning—creating them should just be a matter of aesthetics. Throw a couple consonants together, make sure there’s a vowel in there someplace: voilà. And yet—
Hlerkjer—not a very good nonsense word.
Grimblurp—better, but still aesthetically lacking…
Runcible—now, that’s quality nonsense.
Runcible is a creation of Edward Lear’s, arguably his pièce de résistance—though it faces stiff competition from the likes of tilly-loo, Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò, tiniskoop, cheerious, meloobious, gromboolian, mumbian, bruffled, dolomphious, borascible, fizzgiggious, himmeltanious, tumble-dum-down, spongetaneous, and blatter-platter. Lear, born today in 1812, was a prolific painter and illustrator, but the poem—especially the limerick—is where he really left his mark. In such volumes as The Book of Nonsense; More Nonsense Songs, Pictures, Etc.; Nonsense Botany; The Quangle-Wangle’s Hat; and Scroobious Pip, he cultivated an ear for twaddle, malarkey, and piffle that remains largely unrivaled in letters to this day. His nonsense words have a certain authority to them, so much so that one feels compelled to define them—and on the tongue they have an inimitable springiness, an Anglo-Saxon lilt. When Lear’s characters aren’t named after nonsense or spouting it, they tend to be pursuing it in some form or another, as they do here, in the first stanza of “The Jumblies”:
They went to sea in a Sieve, they did,
In a Sieve they went to sea:
In spite of all their friends could say,
On a winter’s morn, on a stormy day,
In a Sieve they went to sea!
And when the Sieve turned round and round,
And everyone cried, “You’ll all be drowned!”
They cried aloud, “Our Sieve ain’t big,
But we don’t care a button, we don’t care a fig!
In a Sieve we’ll go to sea!”
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.
If Aesop had written his fables on a steady regimen of opiates, they might have turned out like Lear’s poems.
I came to Lear not through runcible—which remains, especially when paired with spoon, a vital part of the popular imagination—but by way of “The Death of Edward Lear,” a 1971 short story by Donald Barthelme in which Lear invites his friends and associates to join him at his deathbed. (He puts on quite a show, in one sense, and not much of a show at all, in another.) Barthelme, of course, was a purveyor of his own grade-A nonsense; you can read “The Death of Edward Lear” as a sort of winking memorial, even if it lacks for limericks. As is often the case with a Barthelme story, its humor begins to accrue a sense of sadness, an existential weight, as it goes on:
People who attended the death of Edward Lear agreed that, all in all, it had been a somewhat tedious performance. Why had he seen fit to read the same old verses, sing again the familiar songs, show the well-known pictures, run through his repertoire once more? Why invitations? Then something was understood: that Mr. Lear had been doing what he had always done and therefore, not doing anything extraordinary. Mr. Lear had transformed the extraordinary into its opposite. He had, in point of fact, created a gentle, genial misunderstanding.
Thus the guests began, as time passed, to regard the affair in an historical light. They told their friends about it, reenacted parts of it for their children and grandchildren. They would reproduce the way the old man had piped “I’ve no money!” in a comical voice, and quote his odd remarks about marrying. The death of Edward Lear became so popular, as the time passed, that revivals were staged in every part of the country, with considerable success. The death of Edward Lear can still be seen, in the smaller cities, in versions enriched by learned interpretation, textual emendation, and changing fashion. One modification is curious; no one knows how it came about. The supporting company plays in the traditional way, but Lear himself appears shouting, shaking, vibrant with rage.