What’s in a place name? More than you’d expect, finds STEPHEN LEWIS, upon dipping into a book of bogus definitions

HERE’S a tester for you: what’s the name of the only character to have appeared in both Star Wars and Harry Potter? Don’t know? It was Acaster Malbis, of course.

Or how about this: what do you call the holding area used by guests waiting to appear on the Jeremy Kyle show? It’s the Blubberhouses, naturally.

And finally: what is the name for that chopped and discarded end of a root vegetable, such as the top of a carrot with the green bits in? That is known as the Nidd.

You may be getting the feeling by now that you’re having your leg pulled. And of course you are.

These ‘definitions’ all occur in a wonderful new book of bogus definitions based on Yorkshire place names. The book is called The Yorkshire Meaning Of Liff, and it is an affectionate tribute, written by Sheffield firefighter Joe Moorwood, to a book written more than 30 years ago by the cult comedy legends Douglas Adams and John Lloyd.

In a nod to Monty Python they called their book The Meaning of Liff – defining liffs as “things there should be words for”.

They used weird and wonderful place names from all over the world to ‘name’ these things. So, for example, the Hampshire village of Baughurst famously became “A fierce, ugly woman who owns a fierce ugly dog”.

Joe, 35, bought the book for his dad on Father’s Day more than 20 years ago. “My dad was literally crying with laughter reading it,” he recalls.

This sparked a bit of a family tradition. Every time any of the Moorwood family came across a concept they couldn’t find a name for, they’d shout “there should be a liff for that”.

Joe long harboured the dream of writing a book of liffs. He’s had an interesting life that has taken in being a PR man, travelling the world, teaching English in Vietnam – and now firefighter.

With all that going on, he just never managed to get around to that book. Then, a couple of years, ago his wife Emma became pregnant – and that spurred him into action. “I thought, ‘I’ve got nine months, and then I’ll never have time’. Which has proved to be true,” he says.

His original idea was to base the book purely on place names in his native Sheffield. Then he decided to extend it to the whole of Yorkshire – and stumbled on the rich treasure of weird and wacky place names from north and east Yorkshire.

He could hardly believe his luck, he admits – in fact, in the end, he had to struggle to make sure North Yorkshire didn’t take over the book.

He’s certainly mined a rich seam. The Fylingdales is “an adolescent male’s first attempt at sideburns”; a Haxby is “something bought to distract the cashier’s attention from the embarrassing item you actually came in for”; while those annoying people who sit in the seats behind you at the cinema and ruin the film by continually whispering that the book was better are known as ‘Kilnwick Percies’ (singular: the Kilnwick Percy). To Leeming, meanwhile, is to “squeeze the trigger on a petrol pump in little burst, in an attempt to hit a round number on the dial”.

Book completed (Joe and Emma’s son Noah, who spurred Joe into action, is now two and a half years old) Joe got the usual rejections. He then emailed his manuscript to the producers of a Radio Four show celebrating the original ‘Meaning of Liff’ book’s 30th anniversary. They passed it on to John Lloyd, the creator of QI and Douglas Adam’s original co-author. And the next thing he knew, Joe got a call out of the blue from Lloyd, saying he loved it.

The book has now been published, in perfect time for Christmas, by Great Northern. Joe’s dad Rowan has done the illustrations – and John Lloyd himself has written an introduction.

“After 40 years in radio and television, I think I’m right in saying I have never produced a show, directed a movie or got involved in a book based on a script sent to me out of the blue by someone I’ve never met,” Lloyd writes.

“Until now, that is. Because, after dutifully (and with something of a heavy heart) finally getting round to reading the manuscript, I was astonished to find myself laughing aloud.”

There will be plenty more people liffing aloud once they get their hands on this.

• The Yorkshire Meaning of Liff by Joe Moorwood is published by Great Northern, priced £5.99


Some more definitions

Ampleforth (verb): To stride confidently onto the dance floor at the office Christmas party, having spent the first half of the evening drinking oneself into the necessary state of self-assurance.

Hunmanby (noun): The silent empathy of downtrodden men waiting outside ladies’ changing rooms.

Full Sutton (noun): A satisfyingly successful nose blow Old Malton (noun): The longest surviving food item in a freezer, destined never to be thrown away or eaten.

Sinnington (noun): Someone who thinks it’s original to stick chewing gum under furniture.

Thwing (verb): To lip-sync a hymn at a church wedding. This may result from not knowing the tune, fear of singing in public, or an inability to settle on an octave that will suit the chorus.