Browsing Reference

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable Centenary Edition, Revised by Ivor H. Evans. Harper & Row, 1981. 0060149035.

Brewer’s Dictionary of 20th Century Phrase and Fable. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991. 0395616492.

Sarah: There was a small bookcase in the dining room when I grew up…
Gene: This is another of those “when Sarah was growing up” books?
S: Uh huh. One of the things my dad would do when my brother and I asked kid questions during mealtimes is he’d say, “Let’s find out!” and grab a book off a shelf. And we’d look up the answer. We had the compact Oxford English Dictionary and this. I’m sure there were other books, but those are the two I remember. That’s a really happy memory for me, approaching questions like that. I hope I can pay that forward.
G: That’s nice.
S: Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable is one of those things for when you read a phrase or hear a phrase and need to know what it means and where it’s from. Later in life I learned that some people look down their nose at Brewer’s idea of phrase origins, so maybe it isn’t super-reliable? I have two editions, one is the one I grew up with and the other is more modern, called 20th Century Phrase and Fable. The old one leans more towards classical stuff.
G: So what do you look up in this?
S: Someone says, “That’s like the Sword of Damocles,” and you look it up to find up what it means.
G: (reading) “impending evil or danger”
S: And then it tells you the story of Damocles so you get the meaning and the context. This is good when you’re a kid and don’t know what anything means. (laughs) Because this is not individual words, you can’t get this from a dictionary. There might be an entry based on a word sometimes, though, like here’s a section on “deaf:” deaf as an adder, deaf as a beetle, deaf as a post, deaf as a white cat, none so deaf as those who won’t hear.
G: So they have phrases with the word deaf, and fables.
S: Then there are entries like this one, “Death from Strange Causes.”
G: What???
S: I don’t know when you would look this up, unless you knew it was in there.
G: This is the browsing part.
S: Yes. So it starts with classical sources: “Aeschylus was killed by a tortoise, dropped on his bald head by an eagle.” Which is a) crazy, 2) hilarious, and iii) when it came up in a Mystery Science Theater episode I was like “Oh! I know what that means!” And here, where it says “Death or Glory Boys, see Regimental and Divisional Nicknames,” you’re not going to find that anywhere else. It’s niche, but if you’re reading a certain kind of book, you need it. It’s primarily British, but it has some stuff from the US, which is marked as being from the US.
G: Who was Brewer?
S: Dunno, probably says somewhere.
G: Who cares? Some guy.
S: The 20th Century one has way more updated stuff, brings in more contemporary comments, but it drops things like the famous deaths.
G: Aww!
S: So when this came out, a lot of people refused to switch. There’s an entry for “Dr. Dolittle.”
G: An entry for “breathalyzer.”
S: “Famous Last Words,” which is a cool list that wasn’t in the older one. (Reference update: but there is a list of “Dying Sayings,” which is why I didn’t find it!) And in the entry for “Muppet,” it has the felt puppet definition, then what it means as British derogatory slang.
G: This is not a dictionary of phrase and fable anymore.
S: Yeah, it’s a different sort of thing, but still different from a dictionary. If you looked up “Muppet” in the dictionary, it wouldn’t necessarily have the slang meaning. (Reference update: Merriam Webster doesn’t have it at all, Oxford English has the slang meaning and dates it from the late 1980s.)
G: Why does “nuclear reactor” have an entry?
S: I don’t know why, but I kept running across entries explaining the science of a thing. Why are those in the book?
G: I feel like the newer one lost that reference feeling.
S: Yeah.

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