What are they on about?

27th April 2001 at 01:00
David Newnham ponders a daring trip across the Channel

Booked anything for the summer, have you? We thought we might give The Continent a try this year. Okay, so it's a bit daring, but you only live once. I suppose we shall have to adapt to those continental ways. From what I hear, continentals don't use sheets or blankets. No, they just fling a sort of eiderdown on the bed.

You'd think they would work up an appetite, doing continental things under their continental quilts. But it seems not. Apparently, a "continental breakfast" is little more than a roll and butter, washed down with strong coffee. Well it would be strong, wouldn't it? They don't call it Continental Blend for nothing.

All right, so nobody talks quite that way any more, now that cheaper air travel and Euroscepticism have taken much of the zing out of the C word. The Continent is exotic, sophisticated, sexy, dangerous, exciting, strong, passionate and extravagant - everything that Blighty isn't. Which is a hell of a lot of posh attributes for something that's not even a continent.

It's true, isn't it? The word "continent" comes from the Latin "trra continens", meaning "continuous land". But the trouble with Europe is that it's a little too continuous. Unless my atlas is seriously out of date, it continues into Asia - a proper continent if ever there was one - without let or hindrance.

Alone among the Big 7 land masses, Europe is an anomaly - a cultural and political entity maybe, but with less right to be classed a continent than Greenland.

How can it be that the chunk of land south of the Himalayas is only a sub-continent when we who have no such obvious physical boundary get to be a full-blown continent? It is, I fear, chauvinism on a geographical scale.

Unless, of course, we choose to use the word continent in the other sense - the "contained", "held together" non-leaky sense of which my dictionary speaks. In the days when the "boat train" left regularly from London's Liverpool Street station, there used to be a saying which nicely juxtaposed these closely related words: "Harwich for the continent, Frinton for the incontinent."

So there we have it. The Continent, or just plain continent? You spends your penny and you takes your choice.


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