Better known as Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, this fascinating brick of a work was first published in 1870, and its nineteenth edition in 2013. You will not be surprised to learn that our reissue is of the first edition, a ‘museum of literary odds and ends’ which was condensed, as Brewer explains, from manuscript notes ‘thrice the size of the finished book’.
Brewer already had form as a snapper-up of unconsidered literary trifles before this perennial best-seller came into being. Born in May 1810 (possibly in Russell Square in London – an appropriate location, one might feel – but more likely in Norwich), he was one of eleven surviving children of a Norwich schoolmaster and his second wife.
Several of his siblings went on to have distinguished careers: his elder brother John Sherren Brewer was editor of many volumes of State Papers and works in the Rolls Series, and the original editor of the immense series of Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII. William was a surgeon and later a Liberal M.P., and Robert Kitton Brewer, a Baptist minister and teacher (author of the fun-sounding What Shall We Do With Tom? Or Hints To Parents And Others About School) was also a talented musician, while two of his sisters ran a girls’ school in Norwich.
Although their father, like their brother Robert, was associated with the Baptist community, both John and Ebenezer were ordained into the Church of England, Ebenezer after first studying law at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He returned to Norwich to work at his father’s school, and while there began composing his Guide to the Scientific Knowledge of Things Familiar, published about 1841.
It opens: ‘Of all science, none is more generally interesting than that which explains the common phenomena of life. We see that salt and snow are both white, a rose red, leaves green, and the violet a deep purple; but how few persons ever ask the reason why!’ The whole book is in question-and-answer format, with the theoretical science firmly pegged to ‘things familiar’: for example, under ‘Chemical action a source of heat’, we find ‘Smoke and smoky chimneys’ and ‘Lamps and candles’.
The Guide was enormously successful, and he followed it up in 1847 with another pedagogical work, the Poetical Chronology, which used verse and rhyme to drum dates and facts into infant heads. Its first stanza goes:
‘One-thousand-sixty-six from France the Norman CONQUEROR came / And 20 years by rigour sought the British soul to tame. / The COURT of CHANC’RY was reformed one-thousand-sixty-seven, / To mitigate the written law, and render justice even.’
and the last (for 1847) notes the ‘general FAST / For scarcity in Ireland, both this year and the last’. At the end of each section are more Q & A tests: ‘Q. Who was Dr John Birkbeck?: A. A native of Yorkshire, who founded the London Mechanics’ Institute, of which he was President’, ‘Q. Who was Thomas Clarkson? A. A benevolent quaker, whose whole life was passed in labouring to effect the extinction of the slave-trade.’ (In fact, large numbers of our authors get a shout-out!) And the book finishes with rhyming theological reflections, and a ‘Mnemonic Chronology’: ‘1066 lcbb’ stands for ‘Lowly conquer’d Britain bends / When William on her coast descends’.
This too went down extremely well (mass chanting of mnemonics must have been fun for the schoolchildren, as well as making life easy for the teachers and monitors). In fact, in 1852 Brewer seems to have dropped out of school-teaching for a six-year sabbatical in France, during which he married an English clergyman’s daughter. Back in London in 1859, he continued to produce school text-books and other reference works, among which the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable has achieved the distinction of being known just by his name: ‘Brewer’, like ‘Grove’ or ‘Bradshaw’, doesn’t need a title.
I could go on at exhaustive/exhausting length about the wonders of this book, but have used sortes Vergilianae to select just three entries (though as I recall, this didn’t turn out too well for Charles I).
‘Bogus: The word is a corruption of Borghese, a swindler who did a great business in supplying America with counterfeit bills, bills on fictitious banks, and sham mortgages.’
‘Mahometan gruel: A cant term for coffee, the common beverage of the Turks.’
‘Starch: Mrs Anne Turner, half-milliner, half-procuress, introduced into England the French custom of using yellow starch in getting up bands and cuffs. She trafficked in poison, and being concerned in the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury, appeared on the scaffold with a huge ruff. This was done by lord Coke’s order, and this was the means of putting an end to this absurd fashion.’
If you like ‘curious or novel etymologies, pseudonyms and popular titles, local traditions and literary blunders, biographical and historical trifles too insignificant to find a place in books of higher pretension, but not too worthless to be worth knowing’, look no further than Brewer!