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Watford Gap again

A couple of months ago I wrote a post about the expression north of Watford Gap, in which I noted that the expression is now frequently shortened to north of Watford and many people think the latter is the correct expression (although Watford Gap and Watford are completely different places). You can see the original post here:

Anyway, my theory was disputed by some readers, including Mr John Dunn, who believed that north of Watford was the original expression and backed it up by noting that this version is quoted in Hansard as early as the late 60s, while north of Watford Gap does not appear in Hansard until much later.

I did not know for sure who was right, so left it there. But a recent report in the Times (17/10/2017) suggests my original claim was correct. According to the historian Max Adams, Watling Street (the A5, which runs through Watford Gap) was a “cultural boundary” for Viking settlers; many Viking place-names are found to the north of it, but none to the south. This is because Watford Gap is the site of a watershed: rivers to the south of it flow south; while rivers to the north of it flow north, which would have been natural trading routes for the Vikings. So in a sense the north really does begin at Watford Gap.


Rock eel: a story in 3 parts

I was in a fish and chip shop the other day and I saw that they had rock on the menu. That must be what we used to call rock eel, I thought; you don’t see it in chip shops much any more. So I ordered it for nostalgia’s sake. And it was really nice. Exactly as I remembered it, though I don’t suppose I’d eaten it for about a quarter of a century. It has a bone down the middle and is softer, denser, less flaky than cod. The flesh is creamy rather than white and it’s quite oily, with a strong, distinctive flavour. I wondered why it was no longer called rock eel – perhaps people don’t like the thought of eating eels these days.

That’s Part 1 of the story. Part 2 is that as chance would have it I was in another chip shop a few days later and this one had rock salmon on the menu. Was that the same fish? I had to order it, for the sake of the pursuit of knowledge. Sure enough, it was the same fish. Which I used to know as rock eel. But what is it, an eel or a salmon?

Now here’s Part 3. I googled it and it turns out the fish is neither an eel nor a salmon. Nor a rock. It is actually called huss and is a species of small shark. Why it goes around masquerading as other fish… well, that’s anyone’s guess. Perhaps somebody can supply a part 4 to conclude this story?

Plotinus and Ptolemy

This afternoon I have to teach a class to my WEA philosophy group, on Neoplatonism. This is not a subject I know a vast amount about – I have enough knowledge at most to be able to keep a discussion going for a couple of hours, but since the class is for two hours and includes a tea-break, that should be all right. Anyway it struck me that I’d better make sure I can pronounce all the names, so I googled ‘How do you pronounce “Plotinus”?’ I’d always thought it was PLOTinus; but one website told me it was Plo-TINE-us; then another told me it was Plo-TEEN-us; and a third said it could be either PLOTinus or Plo-TINE-us. So I’m not really any the wiser.

After that I googled ‘How do you pronounce “Ptolemy”?’ I found a Youtube video one minute and eight seconds long, devoted to this single topic. It consists of a voice saying “Ptolemy” (silent P, of course) over and again, interspersed with occasional sentences such as “I hear Ptolemy has got a job in Malibu”. Most surprising of all, this video has had over a hundred thousand visits!

A bromide

I’ve been reading AC Grayling’s book of essays (originally Guardian columns) The Meaning of Things, and came across the following: “courage can only be felt by those who are afraid”. This is of course a venerable bromide, which has been around for decades; I first remember coming across it in an Enid Blyton story when I was about nine. Like all bromides, it’s always delivered as if it is a profound and original thought.

I don’t mean to suggest that it is altogether untrue. We do admire those who conquer their fears, and act as they think they must while quaking inside. That’s courage, I don’t dispute it. But don’t we also admire people who are fearless – daredevils, who brave danger with confidence and style, who exhibit grace under pressure, as Hemingway put it? That is courage too; of a different kind, but still to be admired.

It’s interesting that other virtues aren’t viewed in this way. No one says “generosity can only be felt by those who are miserly”; or “loyalty can only be felt by those who have an urge to betray”; or “kindness can only be felt those who have to overcome impulses of cruelty”.

Actually, Immanuel Kant did view morality in this way. He thought actions were only truly virtuous when duty overcame inclination. For this reason he thought that men, when altruistic, were more virtuous than altruistic women, because he thought women were naturally soft and nice and kind, while men had to strive to conquer their selfishness.

But I don’t agree with Kant, and I don’t agree with AC Grayling either. I think virtues, including courage, are admirable when they go with the grain of a person’s natural inclinations, as well as when they go against.


P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.


Yesterday I was doing the Times crossword and came upon the following clue: “Banter in itself contains one warning signal (10)”. After a certain amount of head-scratching and tea-drinking I got the solution: persiflage (because ‘persiflage’ means ‘banter’, and is obtained by taking the phrase for “in itself” – per se – and wrapping it around the phrase for “one warning signal” – i flag).

Anyway I got to thinking about the word persiflage and I realised this was the first time I’d encountered it outside the works of PG Wodehouse. No other writer, to my knowledge, uses it. Only PG Wodehouse – and he uses it quite a lot.

Are there any other examples of words associated with one particular writer? I don’t think anyone except DH Lawrence ever used the word lambent, for example.

Today’s Swahili lesson

Did you know that the Swahili word for traffic roundabout was kipilefti? Well, it is.

split infinitives revisited

In yesterday’s Daily Mirror, political commentator Kevin Maguire came up with the following avoidably ugly construction: “whether it [the Corbynite camp] seeks radically to reform permanently the party constitution…”

seeks radically to reform permanently”? What is going on there? I will answer my own question: what is going on there is ostentatious avoidance of that absurd shibboleth, the split infinitive. Maguire isn’t just avoiding it; he’s crossing the road to get away from it; he’s leaving town. Why not “seeks to radically, permanently reform the party constitution”? (If he must have two adverbs.) Wouldn’t that sound far more natural?

The “rule” against splitting infinitives has always perplexed and annoyed me. I don’t see the point of it. I have read that it is frowned on because the construction does not occur in Latin. But the construction could not occur in Latin; in Latin the infinitive is formed of a single word. One might as well say, let’s never use the letter w , because the Romans never used it. Why take Latin as our model, anyway? We’re writing English.

Simon Heffer in Simple English writes that he is against split infinitives because they are “inelegant”. Really? Maguire’s mangling of the English language sounds far more inelegant to me than putting the adverb in its natural place, ie before the verb it qualifies. I advise you all to happily split infinitives whenever you feel like it.

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.