I first learned of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable when reading an interview with JK Rowling. Once I became aware of it, I found references to the book all over the place. Apparently every writer in the world already owned and loved a copy. Obviously I needed one too!
The dictionary was written in 1870 by Reverend E. Cobham Brewer. Is was designed to be a sort of poor-man’s education in idiom, history, literature, and folklore. The combination of these different fields leads to some wonderful cross-referencing. Almost every entry contains a “See also” listing other related entries — an endless series of digressions-on-digressions. If Laurence Sterne wrote a reference book, it might look something like this.
It’s this rabbit-hole quality that makes Brewer’s such a valuable source for procrastinators writers. Philip Pullman puts it perfectly in his forward to the recently published 18th edition:
“has anyone ever opened the great Dictionary of Phrase and Fable . . . looked up the one entry they wanted to read about, and then closed it at once? Of all the dictionaries in the world it is the most like a treasure-hunt, where one phrase leads to another, and that to a third, and before you know what’s happened, it’s time for lunch.”
As much as I love this new edition (which I got for Christmas), I was disappointed to see that many of the older, more obscure entries were cut out to make way for contemporary content. That’s a pity because part of the fun is in discovering words and phrases that I could never find on Wikipedia. Even Pullman can’t help but indicate his dismay at this fact, and he ends his forward with a teasing reference to a forgotten tradition of blessing the Duke of Argyle when scratching one’s back. Still, this new edition has plenty of wonderful gems to keep me busy for a while.
You may have figured out by now that I use the “Marginalia” box in the right column to put down things that I read, heard, or saw that day. The entries in that section are transcribed from my physical journal.1 I figured including a designated spot for such stuff might keep me accountable — I’m not allowed to sleep until I’ve learned something new. For the next couple weeks, I’ll be rooting through Brewer’s in search of interesting entries. Enjoy.
- 1. anyone who has ever met me can attest to the fact that I carry a black, spiral-bound journal with me everywhere I go. More on that later. ↩