Fotherington-Tomas and the Mephostus Meeting

Fotherington-Tomas and the Mephostus Meeting

Fotherington-Tomas and the Mephostus Meeting

… Dark revelations abound at Haggrid’s Club for Gentleman…

Two besuited figures, one substantially larger than the other, sat in high, wing-backed, leather chairs, enjoying their glasses of brandy, as they watched the crackling flames dance in the fireplace before them.

Away to one side, squeezed rather uncomfortably into the far corner of the room, in fact, sat two other suited figures, both similarly mismatched in terms of their relative scale. The larger of the two cast a longing glance towards the two chairs and then turned to frostily regard his colleague over the top of his tumbler.

“Would’ve been nice to have sat by the fire on an evening like this,” he said, his voice rumbling like a troll gargling granite. “But someone had to go and have the last slice of apple pie, didn’t they?” he added somewhat petulantly.

“Sorry, FT,” said Maxwell, mopping up a lone droplet of cream hanging from the tip of his waxed moustache. “But you know how much I adore apple pie and it would have been a crime to have let it go to waste. And we did manage to get seats in the drawing room, unlike those poor chaps over there,” he continued, pointing to a glum group of ex-diners, huddled miserably over the Deluxe Scrabble and Cluedo boards in the Games Room.

FT and the Mephostus Meeting. Far end of the dining room at Haggrid's - Rob Gregory Author

The ‘slum’ end of the informal dining room at Haggrid’s.

“I just fancied warming my bones a bit, that’s all. I’m not getting any younger, you know. And in our line of work, you’ve got to learn to take your leisure whenever you can,” said Fotherington-Tomas, snapping his fingers to summon a passing butler to bring him another brandy.

“I don’t know what’s gotten into you, FT,” said Maxwell, regarding his long-time friend with concern. “I mean, it’s not like it’s the depths of midwinter and we’ve been here for most of the day, bathed in centrally-heated bliss, so I can’t really see how you’ve got any reason to be chilled, let alone so miserable.”

By here, Maxwell was referring to Haggrid’s, the oldest and most exclusive gentleman’s club in all of London Town. Founded in fourteen-forty-four, by the son of a Spanish whelk-peddler, it was steeped in history and more than a little mystery to boot. Rumour had it that the Lord Chief Mason kept a private room on the top floor of the building, for his mistress and her pet chinchilla, while others said that there was a fully functional, antique S&M dungeon located in the basement. Both were absolutely true, of course, and a lot more besides, but the only things that really mattered were that the male heirs of the Fotherington-Tomas clan were granted membership in perpetuity, because of a blood-debt owed to them from way back in the early fifteen-hundreds, and that the club was so catastrophically old-fashioned that it insisted on painting its blackballs white.

FT and the Mephostus Meeting. Lower drawing room at Haggrid's - Rob Gregory Author

The lesser drawing room at Haggrid’s.

“You wouldn’t understand, Maxwell. After all, you were only in your first term at Oxford, when it happened,” said Fotherington-Tomas morosely.

“When what happened, FT?” said Maxwell, his eyebrows lifting in anticipation at the thought of his beloved mentor sharing some rare and long-suppressed angst that was gnawing at his indomitable soul.

“Well, it is forty years to the very day, that I first met Doctor Mephostus, if you must know,” replied Fotherington-Tomas, with an unusually distant look about him.

“I never knew that Doctor Mephostus was at Oxford!” exclaimed Maxwell. “You never mentioned that before.”

“Like I said, you were only in your first year and studying History of Art, if I remember correctly, so there would have been little chance that your paths would have crossed,” said Fotherington-Tomas, taking a large swig of brandy from his glass, as if to gird his loins before beginning his confession.

“Ah, yes. History of Art. The noblest of all the academic pursuits,” said Maxwell fondly. “Two hours of lectures a week and a stipend that you could drown a rugby team on. I must admit that I don’t recall it too clearly these days, although I do believe that my initials are still to be found carved in a lintel above one of the cubbies in The Lamb and Flag.”

“That particular admission wouldn’t surprise me in the least, knowing what a rascally rapscallion you were back in those days,” answered Fotherington-Tomas, with a mixture of admonishment and admiration in his eyes.

FT and the Mephostus Meeting. Oxford colleges and meadow - Rob Gregory Author

Oxford University, as seen from the rear.

Fotherington-Tomas drained his glass and then indicated to the steward that he should bring him yet another and one more for Maxwell besides.

As the drinks were placed delicately down on the tiny oak table that separated them, Fotherington-Tomas continued:

“Yes, Mephostus was indeed an Oxford boy. An old Mortonian, like myself, in fact. We used to knock around together quite a bit back then. Along with old Aldo Passlington, the Yorkshire Yippmaster, don’t you know? He was studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the time. Aldo, that was, not Mephostus. We were quite the inseparable threesome, until Aldo’s tastes turned a bit too militant for my liking and he started drinking in The Three Goat’s Heads.”

“Another nugget of glimmering information that I was hitherto unapprised of,” said Maxwell, settling himself into his seat, as the story began to unfold.

“Indeed, but it is Mephostus that is the subject of my woes this evening,” said Fotherington-Tomas, swirling his brandy slowly around in his glass and watching the legs of alcohol, as they dribbled down the glass towards the dark, amber meniscus below. “At that time, he was a brilliant young chemistry student, indentured at the Dyson Perrins Workhouse for Boys, on South Parks Road. And when I say brilliant, he was far ahead of anyone else in his year, and well beyond most of the seasoned Dons who were tutoring him. At one point, they were actually fighting each other in the street, for the honour of having him do his doctoral thesis under them. How wrong that went in the end, especially when that poor organ grinder and his monkey came around the corner…” his voice dropping into silence, as he lost himself in the depths of his glass.

Maxwell took a sip of his own brandy, enjoying the warm smell of the time-aged liquor, as it hit his nose and wormed its way smoothly down his throat. He remained silent, watching Fotherington-Tomas, until the great man suddenly jerked himself from his personal reminiscence and carried on.

“We were the best of friends, old Mephostus and I, at Oxford. I was just finishing my first degree in Zoology and it was he who convinced me to contemplate the study of chemistry for my D.Phil. Well, not pure chemistry, to be absolutely precise about it. Rather the biology of chemistry… and not biochemistry, before you ask. No, we were going to open up a whole new field of human endeavour, Mephostus and I. We would have been Nobel Laureates, for sure, the pair of us. Were it not for the incident.”

FT and the Mephostus Meeting. Dyson Perrins Workhouse for Boys - Rob Gregory Author

The Dyson Perrins Workhouse for Boys. Allegedly modelled on a prison in the Alsace.

“Incident?” queried Maxwell, setting his empty glass down on the table as quietly as he could, so as not to disturb Fotherington-Tomas from his memories.

“Yes, the incident. And how very unfortunate it was for the both of us, upon reflection,” said Fotherington-Tomas, with uncharacteristic sadness in his voice. “We both played rugby for the College and bloody good we were, too. I was in the front row, while he was one of the most talented scrum-halves that I have ever seen on the field. You should have been there, Maxwell, we were truly something to behold. The way that he could run rings around men thrice the size of him was nothing short of amazing. He could have played for England, had his heart been in it, which for a short while, at least, I believe that it was.”

“Anyway, we were both in our final year, when the bi-annual Army versus Oxford rugby match was announced. Naturally, we were both selected for the team and never before, or since, for that matter, have two men trained so hard for an amateur sporting event.”

“So, it was an injury that did him in, was it?” asked Maxwell, daring for just a moment, to interrupt the human mammoth in his captivating monologue.

“No, nothing of the sort!” roared Fotherington-Tomas, causing several of the older members in the establishment to clutch their hands frantically to their chests, for fear of having another heart attack, and so soon after dinner too.

“No, Maxwell. We were both at the peak of physical fitness, when we took to the field that day. It was a glorious June afternoon and a sizeable portion of the University had turned out to watch us play, including, I should point out, most of the chemistry professors from Dyson Perrins. The Army team were predominantly from the Household Cavalry, with a few Royal Marines thrown in to bolster the back row, but what we didn’t know, was that there was a minor Royal, the nephew of one of the Princes or some other, playing on their side. It was a great game, with plenty of playful gouging going on, and a bit of harmless biting in the mauls, of course. Then, just after half-time, Mephostus was sent off for a high tackle on the Royal in question.”

“The rotter!” said Maxwell. “I knew that he was no good, even from the start. What a terrible thing for him to do and to a member of the Royal Family at that!”

FT and the Mephostus Meeting. Rugby jersey and players on the field - Rob Gregory Author

Rugby. A game played by men with odd-shaped balls.

“Far from it,” replied Fotherington-Tomas, darkly. “It was the referee’s fault. It was never a high tackle, not even close to being one, but the foolish fellow couldn’t bear the thought of impugning the good name of the Monarchy, so he castigated Mephostus in the only way that he knew how, with a red card held stiffly aloft, for all to see.”

“Two sides to every story, eh?” said Maxwell, summoning the waiter for another glass of brandy for the pair of them.

“Yes. And we were left without our best scrum-half in the process. We ended up losing the match because of that decision and from that day on, Mephostus swore to bring down the entire Royal Family. If the referee had only made the correct decision, then I wouldn’t be left where I am today, battling a nemesis of considerable guile, who was once my very best friend in the world.

I tried to remonstrate with him in the changing rooms after the match. Mephostus, that was, not the referee, but the damage was done. I don’t mind admitting that he frightened me to the very core, such was the bitterness with which he took the referee’s decision. I have never heard such vehemence from the lips of an Englishman in all my life and that is God’s honest truth. It changed my opinion of him in an instant. You know me, Maxwell, old boy. I stand for Queen and Country, no matter what the cost. And to hear the blasphemous slander that was issuing from his lips on that day, with only an Egyptian cotton towel wrapped around his waist, turned my heart into stone. I remember slamming his bony frame against the wall of the changing room, as I left the building, and never again did I spare even the most-paltry word of acknowledgement for his existence as a man born of English parents.”

“I understand your position completely, FT. But, you did indeed make a mortal enemy of him on that day. And the problem with Doctor Mephostus, as you know only too well, is that you can never predict where he is going to strike next.”

“Indeed, Maxwell. Indeed. He’s proven to be as slippery an eel off the pitch, as he was on it,” said Fotherington-Tomas, draining his glass with a single gargantuan gulp.

“What was that, FT? I didn’t say anything,” replied Maxwell, reaching for his glass.

He was but inches away from the table, when Fotherington-Tomas’ suddenly dashed his glass onto the floor and began scrabbling at his bow tie.

FT and the Mephostus Meeting. Poison box from The Prodigy - Rob Gregory Author

I’ve got the poison… I’ve got the remedy! RIP Keith Flint of The Prodigy (1969-2019).

“Poison, Maxwell! Don’t touch it!” he gasped, as his round, moon-like face began to redden, and his eyes bulged alarmingly from their sockets.

“The waiter! It must have been Doctor Mephostus in disguise!” cried Maxwell, scanning the room for any sign of the ancient, grey-haired manservant, who had delivered their drinks.

Fotherington-Tomas started to tremble, as Maxwell watched on in horror, his face as pale as his dear friend’s was red. With every passing second, the trembling grew more and more fitful, until Fotherington-Tomas was jerking around in his seat, like a condemned man riding the blue-limned lightning of the electric chair.

Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the shaking stopped, and Fotherington-Tomas sat bolt upright in his chair, his eyes staring fixedly ahead, as his breathing slowed almost to a stop. Maxwell watched on, transfixed, as beads of perspiration broke out on Fotherington-Tomas’ forehead and began running down his face. Very soon, a small pool of sweat appeared beneath the vast man and Maxwell became aware of an extremely unpleasant odour hanging in the air between them.

Casting his eyes around the room, to see if any of the more antiquated members had passed wind and not admitted it, he noticed that the hubbub, which had accompanied his mentor’s initial shocked outburst had died away, to be replaced by an almost reverential silence, as every pair of eyes in the room fixed themselves on the pair of them.

After what seemed like an age, Fotherington-Tomas’ glassy-eyed stare faded, and his breathing returned to something approaching normality. Rolling his shoulders in displeasure at finding his clothes soaked through with sweat, he shook himself and rose from his chair.

“Are you alright, FT?” asked Maxwell, his voice sounding like a bomb going off in the wood-damped silence of the oak-panelled drawing room.

FT and the Mephostus Meeting. Morton College, Oxford - Rob Gregory Author

Morton College, Oxford. Home to both Fotherington-Tomas and evil Doctor Mephostus.

“Had a close call there, Maxwell,” said Fotherington-Tomas, trying unsuccessfully, to mop his face dry with his sodden handkerchief. “But thankfully, I was able to force the poison out through my pores, before it could attack my nervous system.”

“Another victory for the training of Abbot Victor Falangies, eh?” said Maxwell, handing his own, unspoiled handkerchief, to the dripping form before him.

Before Fotherington-Tomas could reply, the room erupted into a cacophony of cheering and rampant applause, as the assembled members of Haggrid’s rose to their feet, to give their most celebrated brother a standing ovation, in honour of the magnificent show of mind over matter that they had just witnessed.

“Enough. Enough!” boomed Fotherington-Tomas, waving a shovel-sized hand in the air to silence the crowd. “Thank you, my dear fellows. Thank you. But it was really nothing, nothing at all. Now, if you will excuse me, Maxwell and I have a villain to apprehend.”

At that moment, there was a polite tug on his arm and Fotherington-Tomas span around to find himself face to face with a butler bearing a small silver tray. For a second, Maxwell thought that his mighty colleague was going to strike the man, but he regained his immaculate composure, when the terrified fellow managed to stammer out: “Telegram for you, Mister Fotherington-Tomas, Sir.”

“Thank you,” said Fotherington-Tomas in a perfunctory tone, as he lifted the small, yellow envelope from the tray and opened it.

Once again, the drawing room of Haggrid’s fell silent, as Fotherington-Tomas’ eyes scanned the narrow type printed on the telegram. Then, placing the missive back down on the silver tray, he turned to Maxwell and said: “My friend. I am afraid that capturing Doctor Mephostus will have to wait for another day. It would appear that we have been summoned by Her Majesty to make all haste to Paris and from there, to Mont Blanc.”

“Mont Blanc. Whatever for, FT?” asked Maxwell, still glancing around the room for any possible sign of Doctor Mephostus in amongst the servants.

“She didn’t say. But for us, my dear fellow, ‘all haste’ can mean only one thing. And that’s a trip on the Eurostar, followed by the Orient Express!”




Will Fotherington-Tomas get to the Orient Express on time, especially seeing as Network Rail has reported fresh leaves on the line? What hideous peril awaits the brave duo at Mont Blanc? And what of Doctor Mephostus? Will he ever be apprehended, and the safety of The Realm assured? Stay tuned for the next exciting instalment of, The Adventures of Fotherington-Tomas… whenever that might be!

Do chickens have faces?

Do chickens have faces?

Forget about them crossing the road, this is the big one, folks!

A semi-serious anecdote from a former student of poultry behaviour…

The rise of facial recognition technology

Today, we live in a world dominated by technology, one particular part of which is facial recognition. Whether we are passing through an airport, walking down a city street or simply unlocking our mobile phones, our faces are being captured and used to identify us.

Facial recognition technology is based on using the geometry of the face, i.e. the relationship between features such as the distance between your eyes or where your nose sits in relation to your ears, to build a unique map, which can be used to identify you.

But it wasn’t always like this. Back in the late 1990s, facial recognition, the way we know it today, was a dream. Pure science fiction. In fact, it wasn’t until 1999 that a commercially viable product using iris recognition was available on the market.

Now, turn your attention to a young scientist, working towards his doctoral degree at Oxford University at around the same time. Poor fellow. He was investigating social discrimination in laying hens, which in plain English means: how the heck do chickens recognise each other? This might seem like something of an unusual pastime, not to mention use of taxpayer’s money, but it did have a serious point…


Cover of my doctoral thesis on chickens - Rob Gregory Author

My doctoral thesis. Yes, I did complete it and am still rather proud of it.


Facial recognition and the pecking order

Chickens have long been believed to have a strong pecking order. Indeed, the very phrase ‘peck order’ comes from work done by a Norwegian scientist, Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe, back at the turn of the twentieth century. I have my own thoughts on the validity of a strongly linear pecking order, i.e. one where the top dog dominates all those below it, the second in command dominates all but the top dog and so on, as indeed did Schjelderup-Ebbe, but I’ll save that for a future blog.

Suffice to say that scientists have long believed that the way chickens recognise their place in the pecking order is through the comb on their heads and to a lesser degree, the wattles that hang from their throats. The question I was grappling with, because it was indeed me who was that poor young scientist, was whether chickens used individual recognition or what was known as a ‘badge of status’. Think about a sergeant’s stripes and you’ll get the idea. You don’t need to know a sergeant individually, to know how to behave around them!


Head of a chicken showing the comb and wattles - Rob Gregory Author

Traditional wisdom says that the comb and wattles are what chickens use to recognise each other.


Where it gets serious, at least from an animal welfare point of view, is when you look at commercial flocks of hens, which can number in the tens of thousands. If chickens have to rely on individual recognition, then the cost of trying to remember several thousand one-on-one relationships just isn’t worth it and is likely to be highly stressful, which is not good for poor old Chicken-Licken. On the other hand, if they can switch to badges of status, then everything should be hunky-dory, and we can all sleep soundly at night, thank you very much.

So, there you have it. Took a long time to explain, but at least you now know why I was spending an unhealthy amount of time in the company of poultry. And as an enquiring young researcher, I had a question and it annoyed me…


How do chickens recognise faces?

At the time that the peck order is being formed, the comb and wattles are in a juvenile stage, i.e. they are still growing. And growing rapidly. The effect is like trying to remember your place when everyone around you, including yourself, has a new haircut each day. Of course, you could argue that on a day-to-day basis, the change is gradual and so the chickens don’t notice it, but as you can see from the images below, over a seven-week period, when all of the peck order action is happening, the change is really quite substantial.


Picture of a chickens head at different ages - Rob Gregory Author

The same chicken before and after puberty. Look how the comb changes but the other main features do not.


An alternative idea is that the size of the comb and wattles reflects the amount of testosterone the chicken has and so the bird ‘knows’ how strong it is without ever having to see its own features. But that doesn’t really work because there are diseases that cause the comb and wattles to enlarge and change colour, even when the amount of circulating testosterone is low.

And that’s another thing, the placement of the comb and wattles means that a chicken can almost certainly never see its own! It’s like that card game where you slap a card on your forehead and then try to guess what it is, based on what the other players tell you. I’m sorry, but there has to be a better explanation than: chickens use something that they can’t see, and which is changing rapidly, as the basis for settling all of their future arguments about food, water, access to mates etc. After all, if God doesn’t play dice with the universe, why should chickens play cards with their social status?

So, I set out to investigate, taking lots of photographs of chickens as they progressed through puberty and measuring various facial features with a ruler. No particle accelerators or whizz-bang tomfoolery here… just belt and braces British science at its best. And what did I find?


Schematic of a chickens head showing measurements made - Rob Gregory Author

Back then I was a brilliant artist as well!


Chickens have individual and distinct faces

Lo and behold, chickens have faces! Things like the diameter of the eye, the length of the nostril, the length of the ear feathers and beak length changed, on average, less than a millimetre during puberty, in contrast to the comb and wattles, which increased by several orders of magnitude during the same period. Furthermore, after puberty, the same facial features that I had measured essentially stayed the same, giving the animal a consistent set of cues with which to recognise other individuals as they progressed through life.

While this in itself, is not absolute proof that chickens are using those features to recognise other individuals, or indeed, even using individual recognition, it certainly called into question the use of the comb and wattles alone for recognition, which was good enough for me.

And of course, I took it one step further, which is where the link to modern-day facial recognition technology comes in. Consider the following paragraph lifted from my thesis:

Excerpt of text from the doctoral thesis of Rob Gregory Author

Perhaps I was ahead of my time for once? This was written in late 1999.


Unfortunately, I never did that particular piece of follow up research. If I had, then possibly I wouldn’t be sitting here today, writing this blog for you. But nonetheless, I can still get some small satisfaction out of the knowledge that my hypothesis, made on the basis of looking at the humble chicken, has since proven to be validated on a far more complex animal – us!




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A summer’s day in Oxford

A summer’s day in Oxford

A summer’s day in Oxford

… or a punt around the harbour…

For those of you who have been loyally following my blog, you could well be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that I am something of a booze-hound. After all, quite a few of my posts have either directly involved alcohol in one form or another, or been set within the confines of a bar or a pub. So, just to reassure you that there is more to yours truly than a half-empty beer glass and borderline writer’s block, I give you this heart-warming recollection of a good deed done during my time at Oxford University, a tale involving myself, a punt and two elderly Americans.

Summer in Oxford is a glorious thing, spoiled only by the amount of traffic and the huge influx of tourists, all gawking and snapping away at the ancient, stone-built colleges that line the city’s main thoroughfares. Fortunately, I was at one of the newer colleges on the outskirts of the city, so largely avoided the predations of the coachloads of new travellers arriving each day. Consequently, in my mind, it is a place full of sunshine, endless blue skies, fluffy white clouds and of course, punts.

Punts, for those that do not know, are a special type of long, flat-bottomed boat, with square ends, designed to be extremely unstable and difficult to control. Rather than the usual rudder and wheel approach, punts use a long stick, called a ‘punt pole’ to both propel and steer the vessel. It takes a bit of time to master, especially if you come from the ‘other’ place (Cambridge) and persist in standing at the wrong end, but once you have done so, there is no feeling like it.

Getting back to the story at hand, for one reason or another, I found myself with the afternoon off one summer’s day and decided to spend it relaxing by the college harbour, soaking up as much sunlight as my pale skin would take. Just as I was making myself comfortable, I was approached by Barry, one of the college porters, who asked me if I would do him a favour. Not wanting to disappoint him, because he was always very good to me, I agreed without hesitation and followed him to the porter’s lodge, where I met the aforementioned elderly Americans.

It turned out that one of them, the husband if I remember correctly, had been a member of the college many years before and was visiting for the first time since he had graduated, with his wife in tow. Apparently, one of their greatest wishes during their visit to dear old ‘Blighty’ was to go punting, however, neither of them was able to manage a punt anymore and no one else, apart from myself, was around at that time.

Of course, I agreed. I mean, who wouldn’t want to go punting down the Cherwell river on a beautiful summer’s day? Slowly, we made our way to the harbour to find only a single punt remaining. Unfortunately, it was the one that no one ever wanted to use, because it had a split running down the side of it (thankfully above the waterline), which made it even more difficult to control than usual. Undeterred, I gently ushered the American couple into the punt and let them get comfortable on their cushioned seats. Then I unmoored the vessel and pushed off into the harbour, doing my best to cancel out the alarmingly wobbling punt, using my body as a counterweight. It took a little while, but eventually, we made it safely out of the harbour and into the river proper, all ready to take a leisurely cruise along the waterway. However, no sooner had we left, than the lovely American couple, who were, I stress, thoroughly enjoying themselves, announced that they wanted to return to the college because they had another appointment to go to!

I was dumbfounded. We had hardly set off and already they wanted to go back. Was it me? Was it the punt? Were they getting seasick or feared that I would capsize them? I really didn’t know. I tried several times to talk them into going further, but they insisted that all they had really wanted to do was to sit in a punt and be taken around the harbour, and that they were on a very tight schedule and had shortly to leave.

Well, there was nothing that I could do short of abducting them, so I made my way back into the harbour and moored up once again, helping the aged couple out of the punt and back onto dry land. The whole trip had taken less than twenty minutes when I was more than happy for it to have taken two or three hours. Still, as I mentioned before, the Americans were extremely pleased with their experience and thanked me profusely for giving up my time to help them. It was no problem for me. I loved punting and still do, so you can imagine my surprise when they insisted on paying me for my trouble (and I mean insisted, as only Americans can). The ex-college member practically forced a ten-pound note into my reluctant hand before patting me on the back and thanking both myself and Barry once more for our help, as he and his wife left the college.

I never saw them again and I do sincerely hope that they enjoyed their brief punt ride. As for the ten pounds, well, that just happened to be the exact price of a college ‘bar-book’ (tokens for the student pub), so you can guess where that money went!

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A new word for you…

A new word for you…

The story of how ‘Halfaholic’ came into the world…

How new words are made

Somewhere, high in one of the ancient, ivory towers of Oxford University, hidden far from prying eyes, sits a group of wizened academics, whose job it is to create new words for the English language. As they slavishly pore over their little wicker baskets of consonants and vowels, carefully weighing up the precise value of each letter that they may or may not use, there is another group of individuals, usually found lounging around in pubs or bars, that also comes up with new words. And while those of the academics are arguably far more precise and beautifully crafted, the latter group beats them hands down when it comes to sheer output. ‘Halfaholic’ was one such word and this is its story…


The story of halfaholic

It was a few months ago now and several of my bookish friends, not to mention a couple of others who have long since learned to tune out when the conversation turns literary, were enjoying an evening in the bar. The conversation was good and an undisclosed number of alcoholic beverages had been consumed. As a result, the group was rapidly approaching the point in the evening where time takes on an altogether elastic quality and before you know it, the sun is coming up and the table in front of you looks like a glass recycling factory.

Anyway, one of our group, a noted writer and editor, having had ‘one for the road’ several times in a row, decided to make a run for the doors before the witching hour befell us and complete chaos descended. As he wobbled towards the exit, he commented that he should probably stop drinking for the night because the way that he was going he was at risk of becoming an alcoholic.

No sooner were the words out of his mouth than I said something like, “Well, I’m going to carry on because I’m only a halfaholic after all.” I have no idea where it came from, the word just leapt into my beer-addled brain from a place beyond normal time and space. But, like all words, once it was spoken, it couldn’t be taken back and now existed here in our world. The look on my friend’s face said it all, as he tried the new word out for size, smiling as he did so, enjoying its texture and the image that it created in his mind. Then without so much as a ‘by your leave’, he took the word with him and left the bar.

Since then, the word has been happily propagating itself all over the city and you know what, I don’t really mind at all, because it isn’t a bad word, it’s just new and wants to get some recognition. And every now and then, it even comes back to the bar to be spoken by someone completely new, or by my friend, who still loves it dearly.

So, whether you’re an Oxford academic who has had a couple of heavy nights in a row, or just a regular Joe who’s worried about having yet another ‘one for the road’, never fear, there’s a word for you and it’s a good word. You can tell the world with pride that you’re not an alcoholic, you’re a halfaholic instead!




  • I’ve since found out that Halfaholic is also the name of a clothing company, as well as a Hip-Hop band, which just goes to show that some words will find any which way they can to get out of the ether and into the real world!
  • Glass photo – Edan Cohen,
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