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A Plug for Dr Brewer

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Imagine if you will that the Internet has broken down, that your browser’s no longer working, your modem lights up but doesn’t connect, that, in fact, the whole world-spanning web has simply vanished, ceased to be, been switched off, that your computer has been reduced in a moment to nothing more than a winking typewriter with the bonus of Photoshop and Solitaire. That great, vast and glowing source of information, misinformation, mail-order shopping and friendly gossip has shut up shop and left you sitting at your desk twiddling your thumbs. Crikey. Well, as inhuman as such an event may appear, it is actually very similar to how the world was before, say, the turn of the century.

It’s sobering to realize, for me at least and I’m sure for many readers, how quickly I have adapted and subsumed this other realm into normal life. How when I’m sitting at my desk here, working on a poem or a novel, and a query comes to mind, my first impulse is to slip a search into Google or Wikipedia and have an answer delivered to me without moving from my seat, and in mere moments, as quick as that (and to those who argue the Internet is full of lies, well, the answer is to be selective about what you believe and where you read it). Not only does this seem normal, it seems almost indispensable.

But when I lift my eyes from my desk I see that my flat is filled with beautiful untidily stacked bookshelves, and my lintels, sills and tables wobble with papery piles, because although the Internet can beat a reference book for speed and efficacy, still nothing beats a book for pleasure.

Several sorts of pleasure immediately come to mind: first of course, the aesthetic: the look, the weight, the feel, the smell of the thing; and then the browsing joy of letting a book flop open where it will, of flipping a page forward or back, of riffling through and stopping as and when and wherever. Although the web lets you follow tangents and links hither and thither, just like

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Imagine if you will that the Internet has broken down, that your browser’s no longer working, your modem lights up but doesn’t connect, that, in fact, the whole world-spanning web has simply vanished, ceased to be, been switched off, that your computer has been reduced in a moment to nothing more than a winking typewriter with the bonus of Photoshop and Solitaire. That great, vast and glowing source of information, misinformation, mail-order shopping and friendly gossip has shut up shop and left you sitting at your desk twiddling your thumbs. Crikey. Well, as inhuman as such an event may appear, it is actually very similar to how the world was before, say, the turn of the century.

It’s sobering to realize, for me at least and I’m sure for many readers, how quickly I have adapted and subsumed this other realm into normal life. How when I’m sitting at my desk here, working on a poem or a novel, and a query comes to mind, my first impulse is to slip a search into Google or Wikipedia and have an answer delivered to me without moving from my seat, and in mere moments, as quick as that (and to those who argue the Internet is full of lies, well, the answer is to be selective about what you believe and where you read it). Not only does this seem normal, it seems almost indispensable. But when I lift my eyes from my desk I see that my flat is filled with beautiful untidily stacked bookshelves, and my lintels, sills and tables wobble with papery piles, because although the Internet can beat a reference book for speed and efficacy, still nothing beats a book for pleasure. Several sorts of pleasure immediately come to mind: first of course, the aesthetic: the look, the weight, the feel, the smell of the thing; and then the browsing joy of letting a book flop open where it will, of flipping a page forward or back, of riffling through and stopping as and when and wherever. Although the web lets you follow tangents and links hither and thither, just like following the keywords through a reference book, and although Wikipedia has a ‘random entry’ button that dips you in, as it says, at random, the serendipitous thrill of opening an encyclopaedia and letting your eyes fall and follow where they will is something awfully special. Back in the mid-nineteenth century, when there was no Internet, when news took weeks to travel from country to country and even then could barely be trusted, books finally came into their own. Dr Ebenezer Cobham Brewer began his publishing career by writing educational books and the weekly penny magazine Popular Educator in the 1840s for the burgeoning number of adult autodidacts, and then, later, elementary textbooks for schools. It was while compiling these books (A Guide to Science, A Guide to Roman History and My First Book of Bible History/Geography/Reading and Spelling/English History etc. etc.) that the Doctor caught the first glimmer of the idea which would make his name known for a century:

The popularity of these books brought me in a large number of questions on all imaginary matters. I kept these questions and their answers till they grew into a large book, when I sorted them and made the nucleus of the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.

Dr Brewer’s Dictionary (1870) is a uniquely curious lucky dip of a book – part anthology of proverbs, part almanac, part Classical dictionary, part trivia. The man in the street who hadn’t the advantage of schooling in Latin and Greek could now delve to his heart’s content, learning snatches of stories, myths and legends, of history and folklore. The breadth of the book, of one man’s labour, is still impressive.

Unremarkably it is the only book of his forty or so still to be in print and continuously so 140 years later (although I like the sound of the Appendix to Dr Brewer’s Guide to Science, to which is added Poisons and Accidents, the antidotes and remedies (1859), which has a nicely Under Milk Wood ring to it); and even though the contents have been continually updated (he revised the second edition himself in 1895), it remains a treasure trove of language and human history that sits in a place not quite occupied by any other reference work. Many overlap his, but Brewer’s sits at a nexus.

Dipping almost at random and following links back and forth to other pages, today I learn that Cockney is a Middle English word meaning ‘cock’s egg’ which was ‘applied to the small malformed egg occasionally laid by young hens; hence applied to a foolish or spoilt child, or a simpleton’. Later the word came to be applied ‘by country folk, the majority of the population, to townsfolk generally for their reputed ignorance of country life, customs and habits’. Its specific attribution to certain Londoners came about in the seventeenth century.

Following that I read a little history of the Bow Bells: one given in 1472 by John Dun to be rung at 9 o’clock at night ‘to direct travellers on the road to town’, and a bigger one given by William Copland in 1520 ‘for the purpose of “sounding the retreat from work”’.

Just under that is the phrase ‘Bow-window in Front’ which means ‘a big belly’ (the same as a bay-window). I have a bit of one myself, but never has it been so delightfully described.

Just under Bay-window is Bayard, which was the name of a horse that Charlemagne gave ‘to the four sons of Aymon. If only one of the sons mounted, the horse was of ordinary size; but if all four mounted, his body became elongated to the requisite length . . . The name is used for any valuable or wonderful horse.’ Well, I didn’t know that. ‘To ride Bayard of ten toes’ is the same as ‘Going by the Marrow-bone Stage’ which is, of course, to walk. ‘The leg-bone is the marrow-bone of beef and mutton, and the play is on Marylebone (London), formerly pronounced “Marrybun”.’ That leads to Shanks’s Mare or Pony which produces another neat synonym: ‘Walker’s bus’.

Opposite that is Shallal – ‘In former days in Cornwall, a band of rough music which visited newly-married couples and those suspected of immorality’. Which entry leads us to Skimmington, a more specific piece of rough music:

To make an example of nagging wives by forming a ludicrous procession through the village accompanied by rough music to ridicule the offender. A man, mounted on a horse with a distaff in his hand, rode behind the woman with his face to the horse’s tail, while the woman beat him about the jowls with a ladle. As the procession passed a house where the woman was paramount the participants gave the threshold a sweep. The event was called riding the Skimmington.

And there are references to descriptions in Samuel Butler and Walter Scott, and a reminder that ‘the skimmity ride causes the death of Lucetta Farfrae’ in The Mayor of Casterbridge.

Next I learn that ‘By the skin of one’s teeth’ comes from the book of Job and that ‘To skin a flint’ (‘to be very exacting in making a bargain’) is not only the origin of the noun skinflint, but also has a Latin antecedent, lana caprina (goat’s wool), which means ‘something as worthless as the skin of a flint or the fleece of an eggshell’.

A little further down the page is ‘To skylark about’: ‘To amuse oneself in a frolicsome way, jump around and be merry, indulge in mild horseplay. The phrase was originally nautical and referred to the sports of the boys among the rigging after work was done.’ We’re all well aware of the nautical nature of many of our turns of phrase, but that’s one I just learnt.

But Brewer isn’t just a languorous meander. There are also lists, brilliant useful useless lists, a quiz-setter’s delight: Tricolour (a list of countries and their tricoloured flags); The Wise (people (kings) given that surname); Popes numbered among the saints; Rings noted in Fable and Legend; Dying Sayings (‘many of these are either apocryphal or have survived in inaccurate versions’) Giants of the Bible; Giants of Legend and Literature; Giants of Other Note; Misers; and Famous Libraries, for example.

Two final entries I spotted while flicking through just now: ‘Runcible Hat, Spoon – In Edward Lear’s “How Pleasant to Know Mr Lear” there is mention of a runcible hat and in “The Owl and the Pussycat” a runcible spoon. What runcible denotes is not apparent. Some who profess to know describe the spoon as a kind of fork having three broad prongs, one of which has a sharp cutting edge.’ (There is no entry for ‘spork’.) And Dickens. To play the dickens (also ‘What the dickens?’): ‘To play the devil. Dickens here is probably a euphemism for the devil or Old Nick, and is nothing to do with Charles Dickens.’ That last has, to my ear, the air of a man laying an urban myth to bed with a ‘and that’s the last time I’ll say it’.

I hope this little jaunt round Dr Brewer’s dictionary has given a taste of what’s in it. It’s like a fine Sunday walk up on the Downs or a rambling conversation with an old friend: that is to say, it’s familiar in a warm way, may not teach you anything you didn’t know, but might remind you of some things you’d forgotten. When you open it up, you don’t know exactly which way you’re going to go, which turning you might take this afternoon or where you might end up.

There’s probably nothing in there you couldn’t find on the Internet easily enough, but the fact that Dr Brewer sat in his little office upstairs at Cassell’s in the late 1860s thinking, ‘What else should I put in?’ and writing it all down, I think deserves recognition. And his book has at the very least one important thing which means it wins out over the inexhaustible library of the Internet, and that is that it works perfectly well even in a power cut.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 33 © A. F. Harrold 2012


About the contributor

A. F. Harrold is an English poet and performer who can often be seen on the stages of cabaret and comedy clubs and at literary festivals doing things that aren’t quite normal. Somehow he manages to get by: www.afharrold.co.uk.

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