Does anyone look things up in books any more? One of the best-thumbed books in my family home was an almost spineless Penguin dictionary of quotations, invaluable for crosswords and knowledge in general, but I assume that these days almost all such searching is done online – and no harm in that! My day-to-day job would simply not be possible without 24-hour access to the online Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (as discerning readers of this blog will be aware).
Word lists and vocabularies were used in the earliest civilisations, both western and eastern, and concordances of the Bible date from the thirteenth century. The first ‘modern’ dictionary of English (as opposed to a translating dictionary to/from another language) was produced in 1604, but of course Dr Johnson’s dictionary (1755) was the first that we would recognise as doing what a dictionary now does.
During the Enlightenment, many new types of reference book came into being: the Encyclopaedia Britannica was first published between 1768 and 1771, in three volumes. (It is a little known fact that Cambridge University Press published the eleventh edition of 1910–11, which, because it is now in the public domain, is the one so frequently quoted in Wikipedia articles.)
Other specialist reference works also began to flourish at this period, especially in the sciences, with classificatory works by Lamarck, Cuvier, Aiton, Hooker and many others. But the self-improving nineteenth century saw the rise of non-technical ‘look-up’ books in many areas, and we have reissued a number of these.
First in chronological order is John Brand’s two-volume Observations on Popular Antiquities, which I keep on my desk as it’s such an entertaining and informative overview of the traditional English year. (Mid-Lent Sunday is coming up: start soaking the carlings in clean water now.) It was originally published in 1777, but we have reissued the 1813 version, revised by Sir Henry Ellis of the British Museum.
Next is Robert Nares’ Glossary, Or, Collection of Words, Phrases, Names and Allusions to Customs, Proverbs, etc. Which Have Been Thought to Require Illustration, in the Works of English Authors (1822) designed for the ‘average reader’, and a real mine of golden nuggets, which I’ve written about before.
Mary Cowden Clarke’s Shakespeare Concordance (1844–5) is not a book ‘which should be hurled with great force’ as Dorothy Parker once suggested, not least because you might do yourself a mischief. It is A4 size, and the weight of a big brick, and in order to make it more legible, we have (most unusually) increased the font size slightly from the original. If you want to know all the places in the works of Shakespeare in which the word ‘go’ appears, this is for you.
Next up is the perennial Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases (1852), of which we will reissue the first edition this spring. Peter Mark Roget (1779–1869) was a physician, but also one of those intimidating polymaths who wrote one of the Bridgewater treatises, studied nitrous oxide with Davy and Watt, considered the water supply of London along with Thomas Telford (coming soon!), travelled widely, conducted a medical practice, was secretary of the Royal Society, and in his down-time, compiled the one of the best known and most useful reference books in the English language. (There’s nothing like spending time among Victorian intellectuals to make you feel hopelessly inadequate – though of course they did have wives and servants.)
A year later, ‘I.R.P.’ published her Handbook of Familiar Quotations, Chiefly from English Authors (of which we have reissued the third, 1859, edition). The compiler is believed to be Isabella Rushton Preston, but very little beyond her name is known about her. She states in the preface that the collection ‘was originally intended for the amusement of a family circle, without any idea of publication’. But, discovering how many ‘well-read persons’ were ignorant of the authors of even very familiar passages, she determined ‘to restore to the Temples of Poetry the many beautiful fragments which have been stolen from them, and built into the heavy walls of Prose’.
The quotations are listed chronologically, beginning with the Bible, and, pausing for two medieval bits and one from Marlowe, gets into Shakespeare for seventy pages, and then through the British poets up to Tom Moore, Samuel Rogers (?) and Henry Taylor (???). The balance of poets, and the supposed familiarity of quotations, are fascinating. Far too much Pope and Scott (for my taste, anyway). Some Sheridan, but nothing from The Rivals (no allegories on the banks of the Nile); some Wordsworth, but no daffodils, and less familiar (to us) extracts from the ‘Immortality’ ode and ‘Westminster Bridge’. Quite a lot of Burns and Byron, but, needless to say, no rude bits.
I’ve also mentioned before the Bible Word-Book of 1866, a by-product of the Revised English Bible; and I have a soft spot for The Sweet Silvery Sayings of Shakespeare on the Softer Sex (1877), an anthology of improving extracts compiled by ‘An Old Soldier’, who, like ‘I.R.P.’, demonstrates the popular poetic taste of his day. But possibly the best known of all these long-lived reference works is the 1870 masterpiece of Ebenezer Cobham Brewer (1810–97), Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Giving the Derivation, Source, or Origin of Common Phrases, Allusions, and Words that Have a Tale to Tell. (He published a new edition in 1895, and it has been built on and re-published even since.) Whether you want to know, like the little girl on the cover, about cobwebs, or about monteth, or Thorgrim, this is the one-stop shop.