Synopses & Reviews
IntroductionBY John Buchanan-Brown
A reference book that has flourished for over a hundred years is clearly something exceptional. Its original compiler needs to hit upon not so much a new area of information of wide and permanent interest as a way of presenting that material and of providing access to it that satisfies and attracts generation after generation of readers. Equally, such a compiler needs to place his book with publishers sensitive to changing tastes and aware of the need periodically to give the work that face-lift needed to attract fresh generations of readers to the mass of information within. Both these conditions have been satisfied in the case of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. That this is a fresh revision - the Millennium Edition - speaks loudly enough for the publishers' keeping their side of the bargain. Hence it is the purpose of this short introduction to set the original edition in the context of 1870 and to show how skilfully the compiler was able to make available to a wider and predominantly self-educated working-class public some of the more specialized results of 19th-century scholarship.
But what of the compiler himself? What sort of man was Dr E. Cobham Brewer? Some clue was given in the brief Memoir of Dr Brewer with which his grandson, Captain PM.C. Hayman, introduced the Centenary Edition, spicing the plain facts of biography with childhood memories of his grandfather. (After the death of his wife in 1878, Dr Brewer had come to live with his eldest daughter, Captain Hayman's mother, and her husband, Canon H.T. Hayman, Vicar of Edwinstowe in Nottinghamshire.)
'Dr Brewer', Captain Hayman wrote, 'must have been nearly 80 years of age whenI was old enough to remember him at the Vicarage. He had an upstairs room furnished as a bed- sitting- room, for he used to work far into the night, often until three or four in the morning. He always declared that he did his best work then - but he was always down to breakfast dead on time at nine o'clock.
'The walls of this room were papered with a plain white paper, upon which he used to write in pencil stray memoranda and the names of any particularly interesting visitors and the dates on which they came to see him. These names included that of the Duchess of Portland, then one of the most beautiful women in the country. She insisted on going upstairs to my grandfather's own room and carried on a long conversation with him, sitting on his bed, a highly informal proceeding in those days, which particularly pleased the old gentleman!
'He had a wonderful way with children and would put aside whatever he was doing to amuse the children of the house before they went to bed. He was a great hand at cutting out, drawing, telling stories, showing his "treasures" which he had collected in various countries and relating his experiences in France and at the Court of Napoleon I I I and his Empress. But it was his sense of humour, which he could adapt to the childish mind, which made Dr Brewer in his old age such a very delightful companion to the youngest of his grandchildren.
'He was also quite fearless. On one occasion the Vicarage odd-job-man - not remarkable for either intelligence or courage - came up to the house to announce that a rough-looking man was asleep in the stable. Before my father, a county cricketer and a noted sportsman, could move, Dr Brewer had seized a stick and, whenthe Vicar arrived at the stable, he found the old gentleman belabouring the trespasser, a hulking tramp, and exclaiming, "Be off, you scoundrel!" This onslaught was too much for the tramp, who made off as hard as he could go.'
However vivid and photographic a child's memories of a fascinating and muchloved figure, these memories, like the photograph, capture only a fleeting moment in a very long life. This is the patriarchal figure of the portrait by his younger daughter, which was reproduced as a frontispiece to the Centenary Edition. But what of his youth and middle age? Here the information is tantalizingly scanty.
Ebenezer Cobham Brewer was born on 2 May 1810, the son of a Norwich schoolmaster. In 1832 he went up to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, to read for a degree in Law. At the age of 22, he was considerably older than most undergraduates: Thackeray, a year his junior, had departed from neighbouring Trinity College, prematurely, it is true, a couple of years earlier. Brewer's university career was, however, the antithesis of the novelist's. So, far from leaving after a year and heavily in debt, Brewer, according to his grandson, worked his way through college and crowned his achievement by graduating with first-class honours in 1836. Undoubtedly he then hoped for a college fellowship for, such posts then being confined to clergy of the Church of England, he was ordained deacon in 1836 and priest two years later. Equally clearly, he was disappointed in his ambition, for he next appears as assistant and then as successor to his father in their school, Mile End House, Norwich.
One is bound to wonder just how much of a living the school provided for Brewer and his father. It is,perhaps, indicative of financial stringency that Brewer went up to Cambridge so much later than the average undergraduate and that he had to support himself while at the university. Moreover, it is still more suggestive that we next find him in the early 1850s settled in Paris, for throughout the century the Continent was the refuge of those English suffering financial embarrassment. I am not hinting at anything dishonourable, but if Dr Brewer had had to give up his school through financial pressure, the Continent was the ideal place in which to recuperate. ..
"Although most of the missing [entries] are arcane terms, there is plenty left to delight the lover of the odd and obscure." Booklist
Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable is one of the world's best-loved reference books. First published in 1870, this treasury of 'words that have a tale to tell has established itself as one of the great reference classics-the first port of call for tens of thousands of terms, phrases and proper names, and a fund of fascinating, unusual and out-of-the-way information.
At the heart of the dictionary lie entries on the meaning and origin of a vast range of words and expressions, from everyday phrases to Latin tags. Alongside these are articles on people and events in mythology and religion, and on folk customs, superstitions and beliefs. Major events and people in history are also treated, as are movements in art and literature, famous literary characters, and key aspects of popular culture, philosophy, geography, science and magic. To complete this rich mix of information, Brewer and his subsequent editors have added an extraordinary and enticing miscellany of general knowledge-lists of patron saints, terms in heraldry, regimental nicknames, public house names, and famous last words.
For the sixteenth edition of Brewer's the entire existing text has been revised and updated and over 1000 new articles added. These include:
- recent expressions (the full monty, couch
- potato, bit the ground running, Montezuma's revenge)
- recent events and organizations (Black Wednesday, Taliban)
- famous nicknames (Fab Four)
- historical and fictional characters (Attila the Hun, Anne Frank).
Brand-new articles on hurricane names, celebrated place-names in literature, and frequently mispronounced words continue the century-old Brewer's practice of recording unexpected and fascinating information that is not available in other general reference books.
About the Author
Dr. Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, the son of a Norwich schoolmaster, was born in 1810. He graduated in Law from Cambridge in 1836 and two years later was ordained, before returning to teach at his father's school. There he compiled his first major work, A Guide to Science. It proved immensely popular, perhaps funding the extensive European travels he subsequently undertook.
Returning to England in 1856, he slowly put together the work that was to become Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Much of the nucleus of the dictionary derived from correspondence with readers of his earlier works, beginning a tradition of readers' involvement with the new book that continues today. The first edition was published by Cassell in 1870 and sold over 100,000 copies. In 1894 Brewer compiled a completely revised and substantially enlarged edition. He lived for another three years, long enough to see sales of the revised edition 'far exceed our utmost expectations'.
Adrian Room, who has revised the Sixteenth Edition of Brewer's, is the author of over fifty popular reference books, mainly on the origins of words, and, in particular, names. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a member of the English Place-Name Society and American Name Society. He was a Senior Lecturer in Russian with the Ministry of Defence until 1984, when he took up full-time writing.