Phrase: fills a much-needed gap (joke 1950) (non-joke 1857)

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Tue May 4 09:49:12 UTC 2010

Inspired by Barry Popik's great website The Big Apple I have created a
blog called Quotation Investigator. My skill and productivity is a
fraction of Barry Popik's, so it will be much smaller and focused more
on quotations. Many thanks to all the knowledgeable list members who
have been friendly and helpful. Feedback appreciated.

There are two blog posts about the phrase "much needed gap", e.g.,
This book fills a much-needed gap.
This paper fills a much needed gap in the literature.

I did not find any discussion of this interesting phrase in the ADS
list archive. Here is a truncated and abbreviated version of the

For many years writers have been incongruously eager to praise the
filling of a "much-needed gap". Typically, the humor is unintentional,
but sometimes the writer is aware of the precise meaning of the
expression. Biologist Richard Dawkins in a 2006 bestseller said, "The
jest works because we simultaneously understand the two opposite
meanings. Incidentally, I thought it was an invented witticism but, to
my surprise, I find that it has actually been used, in all innocence,
by publishers."

An early example of the misuse of the phrase appears in 1857 in a
newspaper published in Charleston, South Carolina. The author
discusses the transportation network around the city and argues for
the rapid completion of a railroad link between Charleston and
Savannah [CH]:

But, until this much needed gap is filled up between the two cities,
the passenger en route from the North will be compelled to give
Charleston the go-bye, and continue on his journey to Savannah and
Florida via Kingsville, Branchville, and Augusta, over an increased
distance of 115 miles …

The first evidence that QI has located of an author who clearly
recognizes the humorous potential of the phrase "much needed gap"
appears in a footnote of an article in a law journal in 1950. The U.K.
author complains "that a rash of otiose verbiage is spreading across
the once relatively fair face of our statutes". Contemporary laws are
so unwieldy that the author uses the term "gibberish" to describe
sections of them. Here is the footnote [LAW]:

Dr. G. R. Y. Radcliffe, in the course of The Times' correspondence
suggested that the remedy was in the hands of M.P.s who should refuse
to pass legislation which they did not understand. This solution,
although certainly the ideal to be aimed at, would probably result in
a complete cessation of parliamentary activity if introduced all at
once. Thus, although attractive at first sight, it would, it is
feared, merely result in 'the much needed gap' being filled by further
delegated legislation.

The author puts the phrase 'the much needed gap' in quotes because he
or she is aware of its meaning, and would prefer that the gap remain
unfilled. Nevertheless, the odd antithetical use of the phrase
continues unabated.

[CH] 1857 September 21, Charleston Mercury, Charleston and Savannah
Railroad, Page 2, Column 5, Charleston, South Carolina.

[LAW] 1950 October, The Modern Law Review, Vol. 13, No. 4, Page 488,
Blackwell Publishing. (JSTOR)

Garson O'Toole

The American Dialect Society -

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