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Christmas Eve - isn't that a girl's name?

Today - a special Christmas story, entitled "A Special Christmas Story"!

A reader writes: Oh, come ON! Not another special Christmas story! Why do all Christmas stories have to come out at Christmas-time? Why not have a few in summertime when we really need them? Give us a rest!

Miles Kington writes: On the contrary, every time you open the paper you don't find Christmas stories, you read long reports about white Englishmen playing cricket against other white men in the heart of Africa, long- drawn-out reports of long, drawn matches between people we don't know and people we don't care about, in sunshine which the rest of us would pay a fortune to have! What a waste! Every time I switch on Long Wave and hear the commentators burbling on, I think to myself that that sunshine is wasted on these flannelled fools!

A reader writes: I know you don't like pedantry, but shouldn't that be "flanneled" with one `l', not two?

Miles Kington writes: No. I looked it up in the dictionary just now and apparently they spell it with one `l' in the USA and with two in Britain.

A reader writes: Well, what do you know? Thank you. I didn't know that. I find I learn something new from this column every year and, although you have left it very late in 1996, I have learnt something new again this year.

Miles Kington writes: Not at all. I too learn a great deal from my readers.

A reader writes: Oh, yeah? Like what?

Miles Kington writes: Well, let me think. I learnt that there is a body which has been formed solely to get Michael Howard out of office. It is called the Penal League for Howard Reform.

A reader writes: Ha, ha. Very droll.

Miles Kington writes: And true, too. And I also learnt something when I referred in print to the American poetess Joyce Kilmer.

A reader writes: What did you learn?

Miles Kington writes: That she is a he. Hundreds of readers wrote in to point out my gender error, and that Joyce Kilmer was a World War One soldier.

A reader writes: Well, maybe Joyce is a male name in America and female here.

Miles Kington writes: I think not. What about Joyce Carey? A man!

A reader writes: What about Joyce Grenfell?

Miles Kington writes: What about Val Kilmer?

A reader writes: Well, what about her? Who is she?

Miles Kington writes: Not a she. A he. An American actor. Batman and so on.

A reader writes: A man called Val? What's it short for? Valerie? A girl's name!

Miles Kington writes: Not in Russia. Do you remember the sprinter Valeri Borzov? Or the jazz trumpeter Valeri Ponomarev?

A reader writes: Russian jazz trumpeter? Are you having me on?

Miles Kington writes: No, certainly not. I never joke about jazz. But in Val Kilmer's case, Val must be short for Valentine. Think of Sal, too.

A reader writes: Sal? Sally who?

Miles Kington writes: Not Sally. Sal. Don't forget that Sal is a boy's name in America. Remember Sal Mineo? Sal Salvador, the jazz guitarist?

A reader writes: OK, I give up. What's Sal short for?

Miles Kington writes: Salvatore.

A reader writes: OK, let's rephrase the general rule. All Kilmers are the opposite sex of what their name suggests.

Shall we agree on that?

Miles Kington writes: OK. And here's another general rule. The British think that foreign names are funny, except if they are British foreign names.

A reader writes: I don't quite get you ...

Miles Kington writes: When foreign footballers with names like Cantona and Ginola come here, we think the names are very exotic. But we see nothing odd in much more exotic home-grown foreign names such as, to take rugby examples, Dallaglio and De Glanville.

A reader writes: Hmm. Hadn't thought of that.

Miles Kington writes: The other day there was a discussion chaired by Vincent Hanna on Radio 4's Medium Wave between three people who are all English but have wonderfully flavoursome foreign names: David Aaronovitch, Marcelle D'Argie-Smith and Simon Sebag-Montefiore.

A reader writes: Hmm. Impressive. Vincent Hanna, did you say?

Miles Kington writes: Yes.

A reader writes: Hanna is a girl's name, of course.

Miles Kington writes: Yes, but ...

I am afraid we never got round to the special Christmas story. Some time next summer, perhaps.