January 12, 2010


Rev. E Cobham Brewer; revised by John Ayto
1326 pages, Collins Reference

Review by S. F. Winser

I must confess I haven't read all of today's book. Mainly because fifteen-hundred-odd pages of fine-print miscellania is too much to take in, even in a few sittings.

Not that I couldn't. No. In fact, this is the second volume of Brewer's much-beloved dictionary that I have owned. That first one (The sixteenth revision) I not only read from cover to cover, many years ago, but I have flicked through and researched with and simply read in chunks at a time to the point where the dust jacket became threadbare and the spine fell off. I killed it with love.

Hence, we come to my ownership of the 17th revision. It's pretty. White with a gold-inlaid unicorn on the front. I've had it professionally covered in protective plastic to prevent spinal-injuries and messing up of the pristine whiteness. I still have no doubt that this wonderful tome will be read to its untimely death sometime in the next few years. Probably cover-to-cover, at least once.

Because 'Brewer's' is wonderfulness in ink and paper. When I was a kid I used to read dictionaries from one end to the other for the discovery of new words and encyclopaedias from Aardvark to Zoroastrianism for the rush of new knowledge. If there'd been a 'Brewer's in my childhood home I think I may have just disappeared into the thing, Alice-like.

'Brewer's' is words, and phrases and history and mythology and story and fairytales all mixed into a wonderous reference soup. It has explanations of old street-slang, current common phrases, lists of regimental nicknames, and diagrams of the Ptolemaic system of planetary motion. While it might sound like any-old book of miscellania that could be picked up in your local bookstore, what sets 'Brewer's' apart is that, rather than being put together out of a love of trivia, it was originally put together out of a love of trivia, and words, and language in general. Brewer was an aficionado of myth and story and speech. And, just as importantly, it's laid out with forethought, like a proper dictionary. It's not only fun to browse through, one actually can (and this one often does) use it as an honest-to-goodness reference book. It's full and deep. It's not a few hundred factoids in a pleasing layout, chapter by chapter; it's several thousand factoids laid out in dictionary style, cross-referenced. Need to know what the Coryphaeus did in Greek Drama? Look it up and you'll find that not only was he the 'Chorus Leader' but you'll also find the root Greek word and meaning (koruphais, 'leader'), a reference to look up 'Choragus' for more information on the use of the term in Oxford university and a quote that shows both terms in context.

It's like all the joys of a Classical education without the rugby or brutal beatings.

On the same page you'll find among the entries explanations of the phrases and terms 'cot death', 'Coueism' (autosuggestive psychotherapy), 'cottage cheese', 'Costermonger' (and old term for fruit-seller; with a etymological explanation), and The Cottingley Fairies. If it was interesting or useful, Brewer put it in. And, to paraphrase Brewer, most of the stuff in it is even correct! The editors/revisers since then have fixed what was wrong, taken stuff out. Added more, put stuff back in and basically just tried to keep it as fun and interesting and useful as possible. It's been in print since 1870 so it seems to be doing something right. It's definitely my first port of call if I need to look up a god, a monster, an architectural style, a philosophical term, an explanation of that weird German idiom my friend just used or if I'm bored and it's too damn hot to concentrate on a novel. It's almost the perfect book for the smallest room except that it weighs several tonnes and has temptingly soft pages.

Look. Let me just quote some for you from a random page; These three entries are from the first section I looked at and are part of the longer entry for 'Jack':

Jack Horner. A fanciful explanation of the old nursery-rhyme 'Little Jack Horner' is that Jack was the steward of Glastonbury at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries (1536-9), and that by a subterfuge he gained the deeds of the Manor of Mells. It was said that these deeds, with others, were sent to Henry VIII concealed, for safety, in a pasty. 'Jack Horner' was thus the bearer who, on the way, lifted the crust and extracted this 'plum'.

Jacki O. A nickname of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis (1924-94), the glamorous widow of President J.F. Kennedy (JFK). She married Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis (1906-75) in 1968, after he had cast off his long term mistress, opera diva Maria Callas.

Jack-in-a-bottle. The long-tailed titmouse or bottle tit, so called from the shape of its nest.

See? Wonderful! That's just a fraction of the stuff under one entry. I've gotten plot-ideas and entire premises for stories just by flicking and flicking through 'Brewer's' until one of the entries set my brain on fire. And it's guaranteed that on any few pages there'll be at least one entry that makes you go 'Wow!' or 'Ewwww' Or even 'What the futhark*?'.

'Brewer's' comes in a 'Modern Phrase and Fable' version, too. Which is almost as good, but simply because it's restricted in time-frame, is thinner and somehow a touch less charming.

Go. Buy. Enjoy. Learn about stuff that you didn't even know existed until you opened the book. 130 years worth of readers can't be wrong.

*Futhark: Brewer's tells me it's an ancient runic alphabet of the Anglo-Saxons and named after its first six letters – f, u, th, a, r, k.... And, therefore, not rude at all **

** Unless you then use those letters to spell some of the old, Anglo-Saxon words that we still use today like:----censored due to booksquawk's editorial policy---. Then it could be quite rude indeed.


  1. It's painful how much I used to love that book.

  2. You are so right about Brewers.It is one of those great reference books that is a world in itself.