Good Questions: Nothing fishy in the cutlery drawer at Buckingham Palace

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The Independent Culture
WHAT did astrologers make of the recent celestial collisions between Jupiter and the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9? Were they agreed on its portent, and have they been proved right or wrong? (R Hamilton, Barnes, London)

Trudging through the tabloids, we find little consistency in comet-linked predictions during the week beginning 16 July. Many astrologers did not mention it at all, others seemed to considered the comet's likely influence to be minor by comparison with the usual planetary considerations.

The Sun, just before the impact, thought that Capricorns did not need to worry unduly because even though comets often bring bad news, Venus was 'on friendly terms with Jupiter', so you would be sure to find solace or an escape.

The Daily Mail hedged its bets slightly, saying that the collision could be good for Sagittarians and Scorpios, as long as Jupiter sustained only minor damage. But since Jupiter is the planet of good luck, it would probably get away with a bash from a comet.

Historically, comets have been seen as portents of great change, usually - but by no means exclusively - for the worse. Donald K Yeomans, in his scholarly study Comets, writes: 'At one time or another, they have been blamed for presaging war and pestilence, and held responsible for the deaths of great men and the birth of good wine, for periods of drought and Noah's flood, for severely cold weather and the London fire of 1666.'

Comets, however, associated themselves only with momentous events. As Calpurnia says in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: 'When beggars die, there are no comets seen; The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.' The implication seems to be that the comet is a reaction to the event, rather than the cause of it. As Bedford says in the First Part of Henry V:

'Comets, importing change of times and states,

Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky

And with them scourge the bad revolting stars

That have consented unto Henry's death]'

In other words, don't blame the comet. It's all the fault of the stars.

Why are fish-knives blunt? (Robert signature-illegible, Epsom Downs, Surrey)

What are fish-knives? I think you should know that such items are not used in polite society and - we have it on the highest authority - are not to be found at Buckingham Palace.

Nigel Rees, in Good Manners, points out that silver fish-knives and forks were introduced by the Victorian middle classes because steel cutlery was believed to affect the flavour of fish. In earlier times it had been customary for the non-silver-knifed classes to eat their fish with a fork and a crust of bread. The non-U-ness of fish-knives is delightfully satirised by John Betjeman in 'How to Get on in Society' from Few Late Chrysanthemums (1954):

'Phone for the fish-knives, Norman

As Cook is a little unnerved;

You kiddies have crumpled the serviettes

And I must have things daintily served.'

Some say that the bluntness of a fish-knife reflects its primary function, which is to remove the skin while minimising the risk of cutting the flesh. Others say that the skin is delicious. David Mellor, an authority on cutlery, has pointedly remarked that you don't need a sharp knife to cut fish. He also considers the shape of fish knives to be purely decorative. A standard-shaped knife would do the job better.

FEEDBACK: 'I am a 14-year-old pedant,' writes James Palmer of St Albans, 'and I believe that in your 18 July edition of Good Questions, you rather ironically misspelt the word 'misspell' as 'mis-spell' instead of leaving it unhyphenated. I think that the word 'misspell' follows the same patter as many other words of this kind, such as withhold and unnecessary.'

Our mis-take, you are quite right. Godfrey Howard, in The Good English Guide, writes: 'There are not many rules about hyphens that cen be relied upon, so make the most of this one. Words formed with the prefix mis- never take a hyphen. There are no exceptions.' He advises us to ignore old or obstinate dictionaries that hyphenate words such as mis-shape. 'From now on, you can mishandle something, misremember your misspent youth, and make as many misstatements as you like - all without hyphens.'

But you shouldn't call yourself a pedant which, according to the same writer, now implies fussy nit-picking or showing off.

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