Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

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. 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.

1 Comment Leave a Comment

  • I wonder if there’s an e-version that includes everything…

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