Brewer's 'Phrase and Fable' gallops into a new century

On Books

April 16, 2000|By Michael Pakenham

When I was a kid, the library in my family's 200-year-old farmhouse in the Appalacian foothills of northwest New Jersey seemed an infinite frontier. By grownup standards, it was modest, a few hundred books. But to me, it was mysterious, daunting, inviting, unconquerable. The contents were beyond the limits of my imagination.

I don't remember learning to read, but I have few if any memories that predate devouring more or less every book I could reach.

My most regular expeditions were in the Encyclopedia Brittanica. But the single book I most vividly remember was "Brewer's."

There are literate and civilized people who might take it that a book called "Brewer's" would be devoted to beer-making. But in my childhood, the word meant an inexhaustibly rich providence of fact, fantasy, definitions, adventure and delights.

And now comes the newest generation of this friend: "Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable: Sixteenth Edition," revised by Adrian Room (HarperCollins, 1,298 pages, $50).

It is more British than American in content and concept, but it's a compendium of universals -- myths, deities, historic events, turns of language. I have just spent much of a day wandering through it -- hypnotized, excited by fresh new awarenesses and insights, delighted by reunions.

The book goes from "A" (each letter of the alphabet is historically traced and pronounced) to "Zwinglian" ("Pertaining to the teachings of Ulrich (Huldreich) Zwingli (1484-1531), the Swiss reformer and minister at Zurich" about whom I would refer interested readers to Brewer.)

In between, the publisher reports, there are 18,500 entries, 1,000 of them "brand new."

The old, naturally enough, dominate. If there is omission of a mythological figure or phenomenon from the most ancient origins of civilization to modernity, I have no idea what it is. This is the first place to go for tracking down gods and doctrines, literary characters and locations, foreign terms and phrases that have been imported into English usage.

But without abandoning the roots and branches of worldly culture, the new edition gives respect to recent, even hip, developments. It honors "streaking" -- "The act of running naked in a public place" with a citation to a Times of London article of Dec. 22, 1998.

The publishers make much of the inclusion of "The Fab Four" ("An early nickname of the Beatles, 'fab' being a vogue form of 'fabulous'."). But with four full pages of "king" entries, it can be forgiven -- albeit reluctantly -- omitting any reference to Elvis Presley.

And though it's hardly a cutting-edge term, the word "denims" gets treatment that declares witness to both the book's deep tradition of scholarship and its commitment to the "phrase" as well as the fable: "Coloured twilled cotton material used for overalls and, especially, jeans. Its name is a contraction of French serge de Nimes ('serge of Nimes'), from the town in the south of France where it was originally made."

Did you know that?

"Abraxas," in case you wondered, is "a word used by gnostics to personify a deity, the source of 365 emanations." There are entries for "black hole," "The Black Hole of Calcutta," "Black Muslims," "black tie," "black velvet" and some 100 other terms and phrases (I gave up counting) involving the word black.

Betty Boop, who first arrived in Max Fleischer cartoons in the 1920s, was "the first cartoon character to be censored" and finallygot respectable in the 1930s, when she became more fully clothed.

There are four and a half pages of "famous last words" -- certified and apocryphal. Despite its omission of Elvis, this edition has kings galore, including Cotton, Cole and Kong. Rambo is revealed as "The tough Vietnam War veteran [who] first appeared in David Morrell's violent thriller, First Blood (1971)." The line "What will Mrs. Grundy say?" is from Thomas Morton's "Speed the Plough" (1798) -- referring, of course, to prudery.

Enough! The day will disappear in delicious trivia.

The Brewer of the title was Ebenezer Corham Brewer, born in 1810, educated at Cambridge. Trained as a legal scholar, he was an ordained Anglican priest, a teacher and then a nomad writer, until he returned to England to begin this work in 1856. The first edition was published in Britain in 1870 with immense and immediate success. Brewer completed a second expanded and revised edition that was published in 1894. He died in 1897, his name a household word in educated English-speaking homes the world over.

Adrian Room, who is responsible for the new entries, worked as a senior Russian expert with the British Ministry of Defense until 1984, when he retired to devote his full time to writing. He has produced a large collection of popular reference volumes, many on the origins of words and names.

Room's eyes are wide open to modernity, if fittingly skeptical about neologisms. No tribute is paid nor scorn heaped on the principles and platitudes of modern-day political correctness or the academic multiculturalism, to which a book like "Brewer's" is anathema. It reeks, of course, of old dead white guy stuff: the roots, fabric and substance of Western culture.

It's not a detailed encyclopedia. It's not a substitute for deeper sources of knowledge. But it is a splendid guide to other sources.

If you want to dig into the roots of that culture, this is an irreplaceable boon. And even if you have figured out everything you ever intend to, picking up "Brewer's" from time to time will give you the joy of discovery on every page.

Pub Date: 04/16/00

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