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Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. The Work of a Lifetime.

Stephen is an online writer and former English teacher who is interested in sociology, economics, and literature.


A Victorian Life

There were few dramatic highlights in Ebenezer Cobham Brewer's long life. Born in 1810, he died at 86 in 1897. He graduated in Law from Cambridge University in 1836 and was ordained in 1838. Otherwise, he seems to have spent most of his time reading, making notes and writing. He regularly worked through most of the night but was always sitting at his breakfast table at 9.00.

The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable is the work that people remember today. And for a good reason. It is an astonishing work that would be difficult enough to write today. In Brewer's time, it was a labor of love and immense scholarship.

Brewer's life was spent in a Britain that was increasing its empire's reach and power. It was easy to believe, and many did, that the British were the masters of all they surveyed. Brewer's dictionary reflects this common belief to some extent.


The Dictionary

We've mentioned that Brewer took notes. In fact, he never stopped. When he was reading, he would jot down anything that took his fancy and then classify and store his notes. He built up an extensive filing system that allowed him to find information on an enormous variety of subjects. The full title was a concise "Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Giving the Derivation, Source, or Origin of Common Phrases, Allusions and Words That Have a Tale to Tell." He began work on his book in the 1860s and was ready to publish the first edition on 1870. His publisher was not convinced that the dictionary would sell, but it did.

The author was still improving and enlarging the book and issued a new edition in 1894. In the preface to this version, Brewer wrote:

"It is now about a quarter of a century since the first Edition of "Phrase and Fable" was published, and the continuous sale of the book is a proof that it supplies a want very largely felt.

In the interval, much new information has been unearthed on the subjects treated in the Dictionary, many errors of philology have been exposed, and an exactitude has been reached which was almost impossible when the book was first undertaken more than fifty years ago. During this length of time, the book or its manuscript has been always at the author's elbow, that new matter might be laid in store, errors corrected, and suggestions utilized, to render the work more generally useful, and more thoroughly to be depended on."

Throughout the nineteenth century increasing literacy rates and a general expansion of horizons increased the demand for information about the world. For many of the newly literate a university education was an impossible dream but authors such as Brewer filled a need.

The dictionary is still in print today and regularly updated.


A Practical Guide for Readers of the 1894 Edition

If my experience is anything to go by, you can forget the idea that you will immediately find the answer to a question that has been niggling at you for years. Usually, you will not discover the entry that answers your needs, but you will find something fascinating instead. An hour later, you might be able to tear yourself away and get back to work.

One of the charms of the book is that it is a highly individual work. It reflects the interests of its author so you never know what you are going to come across.

Wikipedia describes the dictionary as "highly idiosyncratic" and this is exactly right. It is very much an individual selection and reflects the interests of one man during a specific period of history. Brewer tries to be fair and freely admits his doubts about many entries, he took advice and listened to suggestions but, even so, he is the gatekeeper. A sort of one-man Victorian Wikipedia.


A Dip into the Pool

Let's look at a couple of entries. The first was chosen at random. I came across the second when I was looking for information about America.

Grace's Card or Grace-card. The six of hearts is so called in Kilkenny. At the revolution in 1688, one of the family of Grace, of Courtstown, in Ireland, equipped at his own expense a regiment of foot and troop of horse, in the service of King James. William of Orange promised him high honours if he would join the new party, but the indignant baron wrote on a card, "Tell your master I despise his offer." The card was the six of hearts, and hence the name.

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* It was a common practice till quite modern times to utilise playing-cards for directions, orders, and addresses.

American States. The Americans are rich in nicknames. Every state has, or has had, its sobriquet. The people of

Alabama - lizards

Arkansas - toothpicks

California - gold-hunters

Colorado - rovers

Connecticut - wooden nutmegs

Delaware - musk rats

Florida - fly-up-the-creeks

Georgia - buzzards

Illinois - suckers

Indiana - hoosiers

Iowa - hawk-eyes

Kansas - jay-hawkers

Kentucky - corn-crackers

Louisiana - creoles

Maine - foxes

Maryland - craw-thumpers

Michigan - wolverines

Minnesota - gophers

Mississippi - tadpoles

Missouri - pukes

Nebraska - bug-eaters

Nevada - sage-hens

New Hampshire - granite-boys

New Jersey - Blues or clam-catchers

New York - knickerbockers

North Carolina - tar-boilers or Tuckoes

Ohio - buck-eyes

Oregon - web-feet or hard cases

Pennsylvania - Pennamites or Leather-heads

Rhode Island - gun-flints

South Carolina - weasels

Tennessee - whelps

Texas - beef-heads

Vermont - green-mountain boys

Virginia - beadies

Wisconsin - badgers

I'm not from Nebraska but I find it hard to believe that Nebraskans refer to themselves as "bug-eaters", perhaps others do use the term, but I've certainly never heard it. You have to wonder how many of these terms are still current. But this is part of the charm of the 1894 version, this is the copy that I've got - a copy, not the original, unfortunately - and it's still widely available.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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