QI: Remarkably, the phrase mentioned does appear in many book reviews and other evaluations. For years writers have been incongruously eager to praise the filling of a “much-needed gap”. The book reviewers probably intend to say: “This book is a much needed gap-filler.” Instead, books are not being praised they are being inadvertently condemned because a much-needed gap should certainly remain unfilled.
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.” [DAWK]
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. The writer advocates the link because he wishes to see more travelers transiting through Charleston [CHAR]:
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 …
In the pages of the New York Times of 1892 a dramatic war diary is reprinted. The diarist describes a secret raid and the setting of a trap to capture a cavalry patrol. The plan is successful, and it is reused to capture another patrol. When describing the new deployment of the horses the author says [NY92]:
Besides all this, the horses filled a much-needed gap, and our officers utilized them immediately.
In a medical journal in 1895 a book reviewer attempts to praise a book by saying [UM]:
There has been no exhaustive book on this subject in this country, and Dr. Hamilton’s system fills a much-needed gap.
Skipping forward several decades to 1949 there appears a book review in the scholarly journal Notes and Queries that begins with the critical phrase. This partially answers the questioner above who was interested in a review that begins with the phrase; however, QI would not say that this is the funniest book review he has ever read, even with the unintentional humor in the first sentence [NQ]:
A much-needed gap among works on the history of art has been filled by the latest book by Mr. Ian Finlay.
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 and QI will continue this investigation in the next blog post. Here.
[DAWK] 2006, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, Page 347, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York. (Google Books limited view) link
[CH] 1857 September 21, Charleston Mercury, Charleston and Savannah Railroad, Page 2, Column 5, Charleston, South Carolina. (GenealogyBank)
[NY92] 1892 December 18, New York Times, From a Private’s Diary, Page 17, New York Times Co. (Google News Archive, New York Times News Archive) link
[UM] 1895 February, University Medical Magazine, Book Notices: Review of “A System of Legal Medicine”, Page 373, A.L. Hummel. (Google Books full view) link
[NQ] 1949 March 5, Notes and Queries, The Library, Book review of Art in Scotland by Ian Finlay. Page 109, Oxford University Press. (Google Books snippet view) (Verified on microfilm) link
[LAW] 1950 October, The Modern Law Review, Vol. 13, No. 4, Page 488, Blackwell Publishing. (JSTOR) link