On the Joys of Browsing: Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

By Ron Fritze


These days, people tend to go on the internet to get answers to their questions. I know that I do. That said, I still have and use a big collection of reference books. One reason is that a standard reference book will be more reliable than some of the internet sites (although I think Wikipedia is generally quite reliable). Another reason is that for some purposes, a reference book can be just as easy to use, or even easier than an online source. That is certainly the case for dictionaries. But there is another reason for checking out many ink and paper works of reference—they are fun to browse. Well, maybe not for everyone, but they are fun for me and I am not alone.

One of my favorites is Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. It was first published in 1870 and is now up to its eighteenth edition in 2009 so this book has a venerable history. What is Brewer’s Dictionary about? Phrases and Fables, right? Yes. But there is more. It is a marvelously eclectic collection of information and as such is a browser’s delight. Turn to any page and browse, you’ll experience serendipity. If you check Brewer’s you will learn that the word “serendity” was coined by Horace Walpole in the mid-eighteenth century. It means, “the faculty of making lucky and unexpected finds by accident.” Walpole derived the name from the fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip who were finding things that they had not been looking for. The reader of Brewer’s Dictionary will experience serendipity multiple times on every one of its almost 1500 pages.

On the same page as serendipity, I learned that a “seraphim” was the highest of the nine choirs of angels. Prior to that, I read that the “seraglio” was a name for the place of the sultan in Istanbul, not to be confused with the “harem.” Then there was the “Serbonian Bog” which is great marsh located between the isthmus of Suez, the Nile Delta, and the Mediterranean Sea. In ancient times, it was a lake. It turns out, “Serbonian Bog” can also be used to refer to a messy situation that one cannot escape. “Serene” comes right after “serendipity” and it was a title used by certain German princesses, now we use the word to mean “tranquil” or “unperturbed.”

Brewer’s is full a little treasure of knowledge. If you are feeling lucky, you can go a few pages further, you can check out the voluminous offerings about phrases with the word “seven” in them. Starting with a discussion of the uses of “seven” such as the seven days of the week, Brewer’s goes on to the “Seven Against Thebes,” the “seven ages of man”, the “seven heavens,” the “seven virtues,” and the “seven wonders of the world.” If you want a similar experience, try going to “golden” which goes from “golden age” to “golden thigh.”

One might think Brewer’s is like that magical book in the fairy tale that contains all the knowledge of the world. Alas, not so. It is not comprehensive even if it seems it is. Take the word “mace.” Brewer’s discusses it as a war club or a ceremonial staff like the Athens State University mace used at graduation. The entry does not mention the spice called “mace.” Still it’s a fun book.

Now here is a question for you. What were the names of the “seven dwarfs?” Brewer’s knows. Or for that matter, who were the “seven against Thebes?” Brewer’s knows. If you have a favorite reference book, let the Blog know.