Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Seventeenth Edition
  • Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Seventeenth Edition
  • Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Seventeenth Edition

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Seventeenth Edition

by John Ayto, Terry Pratchett

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable is one of the world's best-loved reference books. First published in 1870, this treasury of 'words that have a story to tell' has established itself as one of the great reference classics—the first port of call for tens of thousands of terms, phrases and proper names, and a fund of fascinating, unusual and

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Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable is one of the world's best-loved reference books. First published in 1870, this treasury of 'words that have a story to tell' has established itself as one of the great reference classics—the first port of call for tens of thousands of terms, phrases and proper names, and a fund of fascinating, unusual and out-of-the-way information.

At the heart of the dictionary lie entries on the meaning and origin of a vast range of words and expressions, from everyday English phrases to Latin tags. Alongside these are articles on people and events in mythology and religion, and on folk customs, superstitions and beliefs. Major events and people in history are also treated, as are movements in art and literature, famous literary characters, and key aspects of popular culture, philosophy, geography, science and magic. To complete this rich mix of information, Brewer and his subsequent editors have added an extraordinary and enticing miscellany of general knowledge—lists of patron saints, terms in heraldry, regimental nicknames, public house names, the principal English horse-races and famous last words.

For the Seventeenth Edition of Brewer's the entire existing text has been revised and updated and more than 1500 new articles added. These include:

  • words and phrases (best thing since sliced bread, bling, where the bodies are buried);
  • characters and places from fantasy literature and film (Gollum, Hogwarts, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Voldemort);
  • political, celebrity and sporting nicknames (Butcher of Baghdad; Dubya);
  • miscellaneous arcana (Chorasmian Waste, dilligrout, dwile flonking).

This first new Brewer's of the 21st century maintains and respects the book's 135-year-old tradition, while offering a wealth of fascinating new material to reflect the 'phrase and fable' of a changing world.

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Editorial Reviews

Daily Telegraph
“Every page contains some gem”
Times Literary Supplement
“It retains the serendipitous charm which has kept the book going for a century.”
The Sunday Times
“...a best-selling barometer of popular culture since Victorian times”
The Augusta Chronicle
“It is a liberal education simply to browse through it...”
Time Magazines Literary Supplement
"It retains the serendipitous charm which has kept the book going for a century."
Library Journal
When first published in 1870, this dictionary was intended as a compilation of "words that have a story to tell"; it succeeds with every edition. This 17th edition, which mixes Brewer's classic eclecticism with 21st-century vocabulary and ideas, has been entirely revised and updated by writer and lexicographer Ayto (coauthor, Brewer's Britain and Ireland). Included are more than 1500 new entries on such topics as everyday words and phrases, major historical events, people both living and dead, literary characters, and works of art, literature, television, and film. Indeed, the A-to-Z entries, each averaging three to four sentences in length, cover such an astounding array of topics that it is interesting to see what is omitted. For example, "September 11 (9/11)" made the cut, but "Osama bin Laden," while referenced in that entry, did not receive its own entry. "Internet" and "e-mail" appear, but there are no entries for "search engine," "text message," or "Google." Ayto acknowledges that entries are occasionally dropped in subsequent editions to make way for new ones, and keeping Brewer's to one volume must certainly be challenging. An American reader might find some of the suggested pronunciations curious: e.g., "Amish," according to its entry, is meant to rhyme with "famish." Additionally, common American word structure is occasionally given a European twist by the British editor and publisher: e.g., the River Potomac rather than the Potomac River. Cross references are indicated by small capital letters. There are only a few black-and-white illustrations, such as for the entries on heraldry and the zodiac. Bottom Line This classic for the ages is immensely browseable; one can get lost in it for hours. Neither as expansive in coverage as the Columbia Encyclopedia (2000) nor as focused as the Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia (1996. 4th ed.), it is nonetheless recommended for all libraries wishing to update older editions or expand their dictionary collection.-Jennifer Jack, U.S. News & World Report Lib. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
7.40(w) x 9.10(h) x 2.80(d)
Age Range:
12 - 17 Years

Read an Excerpt

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Seventeenth Edition

By John Ayto

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 John Ayto
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0061121207


By John Buchanan-Brown

A reference book that has flourished for over a hundred years is clearly something exceptional. Its compiler must hit upon, if not so much a new area of information--of a wide and permanent interest then at least a way of presenting it that proves to satisfy and attract generation after generation of readers. Equally, such a compiler must be able to place his book with publishers sensitive to changing tastes and aware of the need, periodically, to give the work a face-lift to attract those fresh generations of readers to the mass of information within. Both these conditions were satisfied in the case of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Cassell may now be part of Weidenfeld & Nicolson, but the fact that this is a fresh revision for the 21st century--the 17th Edition--speaks loudly enough for Cassell's and Weidenfeld's keeping of the publisher's side of the bargain.

It is the purpose of this short Introduction to set the original edition in the context of 1870 and to show how skilfully the original compiler was able to make available to a wide and predominantly self-educated working-class public some of the more specialized results of 19th-century scholarship.

But what of thecompiler himself? What sort of man was Dr E. Cobham Brewer? Some clue was given in the brief 'Memoir of Dr Brewer' with which his grandson, Captain P.M.C. Hayman, introduced the Centenary Edition, spicing the plain facts of biography with childhood memories of his grandfather. (After the death of his wife in 1878, Dr Brewer had come to live with his eldest daughter, Captain Hayman's mother, and her husband, Canon H.T. Hayman, Vicar of Edwinstowe in Nottinghamshire.)

'Dr Brewer', Captain Hayman wrote, 'must have been nearly 80 years of age when I was old enough to remember him at the Vicarage. He had an upstairs room furnished as a bed-sitting-room, for he used to work far into the night, often until three or four in the morning. He always declared that he did his best work then--but he was always down to breakfast dead on time at nine o'clock.'

'The walls of this room were papered with a plain white paper, upon which he used to write in pencil stray memoranda and the names of any particularly interesting visitors and the dates on which they came to see him. These names included that of the Duchess of Portland, then one of the most beautiful women in the country. She insisted on going upstairs to my grandfather's own room and carried on a long conversation with him, sitting on his bed, a highly informal proceeding in those days, which particularly pleased the old gentleman!'

'He had a wonderful way with children and would put aside whatever he was doing to amuse the children of the house before they went to bed. He was a great hand at cutting out, drawing, telling stories, showing his "treasures" which he had collected in various countries and relating his experiences in France and at the Court of Napoleon III and his Empress. But it was his sense of humour, which he could adapt to the childish mind, which made Dr Brewer in his old age such a very delightful companion to the youngest of his grandchildren.'

'He was also quite fearless. On one occasion the Vicarage odd-job-man--not remarkable for either intelligence or courage--came up to the house to announce that a rough-looking man was asleep in the stable. Before my father, a county cricketer and a noted sportsman, could move, Dr Brewer had seized a stick and, when the Vicar arrived at the stable, he found the old gentleman belabouring the trespasser, a hulking tramp, and exclaiming: "Be off, you scoundrel!" This onslaught was too much for the tramp, who made off as hard as he could go.'

However vivid and photographic a child's memories of a fascinating and much-loved figure, these memories, like the photograph, capture only a fleeting moment in a very long life. This is the patriarchal figure of the portrait by his younger daughter, which was reproduced as a frontispiece to the Centenary Edition. But what of his youth and middle age? Here the information is tantalizingly scanty.

Ebenezer Cobham Brewer was born on 2 May 1810, the son of a Norwich schoolmaster. In 1832 he went up to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, to read for a degree in Law. At the age of 22, he was considerably older than most undergraduates: the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, a year his junior, had departed from neighbouring Trinity College prematurely, it is true--a couple of years earlier. Brewer's university career was, however, the antithesis of the novelist's. So, far from leaving after a year and heavily in debt, Brewer, according to his grandson, worked his way through college and crowned his achievement by graduating with first-class honours in 1836. Undoubtedly he then hoped for a college fellowship, for, such posts then being confined to clergy of the Church of England, he was ordained deacon in 1836 and priest two years later. Equally clearly, he was disappointed in his ambition, for he next appears as assistant and then as successor to his father in their school, Mile End House, Norwich.

One is bound to wonder just how much of a living the school provided for Brewer and his father. It is, perhaps, indicative of financial stringency that Brewer went up to Cambridge so much later than the average undergraduate and that he had to support himself while at the university, Moreover, it is still more suggestive that we next find him in the early 1850s settled in Paris, for throughout the century the Continent was the refuge of those English suffering financial embarrassment. I am not hinting at anything dishonourable, but if Dr Brewer had had to give up his school through financial pressure, the Continent was the ideal place in which to recuperate. Living was cheap, and, above all, there was no need to keep up those middle-class appearances so essential in one's native land.


Excerpted from Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Seventeenth Edition by John Ayto Copyright © 2006 by John Ayto. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

John Ayto is a writer and lexicographer. He is the author (with Ian Crofton) of Brewer's Britain and Ireland. His other authorial credits include The Oxford Dictionary of Slang, The Bloomsbury Dictionary of Word Origins and Twentieth Century Words. He was a contributor to the Oxford Companion to Food. He lives in London.

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