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Two Brewer's Dictionaries

This autumn, a new edition of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable has come out, together with a new stable mate, Brewer’s Dictionary of London Phrase and Fable.

The cover of 'Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable'

The first two editions of Dr Ebenezer Cobham Brewer’s work, of 1870 and 1896, were dominated by its creator’s idiosyncratic approach, full of personal opinions and with an eclectic exuberance in the choice of topics. More recent editions, from the 15th onwards, have sought to remove his personal bias and individual touch in favour of a more respectable and authoritative approach.

This edition — the 18th — is the first to be published by Chambers Harrap and represents a further significant change, not back to the bad old days but to a more witty commentary. Chambers, of course, publishes Chambers Dictionary, which is famous for what Philip Pullman, in his introduction, calls “miniature detonations of wit” (“middle-aged: between youth and old age, variously reckoned to suit the reckoner”; “éclair: a cake, long in shape but short in duration”). This flavour has been carried over to the new Brewer, though it may not suit everybody:

Boredom seems to have been discovered around the middle of the 18th century. No doubt people had been bored before then, but evidently they could not be bothered to find a word for it.

Extraordinary rendition: a masterpiece of the euphemizer’s art, cloaking the unpalatable in the polysyllabic obscurity of words used with a pompous literalness.

Extraordinary rendition is joined by new many other new entries, such as those on homeland security, civil partnership, blog, honour killing, and Harry Potter; the set of popular expressions is added to with entries for such phrases as six degrees of separation and lipstick on a pig; entries on modern urban legends are also here, such as one on the infamous but fictitious alligators in the sewers of New York. A retrospective innovation is the inclusion of about 200 of Brewer’s entries from the second edition.

The cover of 'Brewer's Dictionary of London Phrase and Fable'

While turning over the pages at random you may uncover a selection of famous first lines in fiction, the 99 most beautiful names of Allah, stories behind famous British pub names, long lists of famous nicknames or pseudonyms, a tabulation of fictional place names in literature with their real equivalents, or a schedule of the symbols of saints. You cannot be bored by Brewer.

Similarly, if you have any interest at all in the story of London, you will find much in the newest member of the Brewer collection, Brewer’s Dictionary of London Phrase and Fable, to keep you reading. I won’t say more, not least because I’m mentioned in the acknowledgements (you may detect my influence in entries such as the one on the Marylebone stage, meaning to go on foot).

[Camilla Rockwood [ed], Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable; published in the UK in August 2009; due in North America in March 2010; hardback, pp1460; publisher’s list price £25.00; ISBN-13: 978-0-550-10411-3; ISBN-10: 0-550-10411-9.]

Page created 7 Nov. 2009

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