Ebenezer Cobham Brewer: The Victorian writer from Notts who created his own dictionary

Words: Andrew Tucker
Photos: G.B. Esam
Monday 27 May 2024
reading time: min, words

For more than 150 years, Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable has been a prized possession for imaginative authors. In a house near Sherwood Forest, we remember the man who first wrote it…

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Language deceives us. Picture Winnie the Pooh’s face when he first inadvertently visited LoveHoney.co.uk - there are concepts to which the Hundred Acre Wood and its many cheerful residents should never be exposed. But dictionaries are here to save us - with a clear definition, a usage and an etymology, through dictionaries we can nail those words down to their proper meanings. The more we try to hammer words into place, though, the more they seem to float away.

For example - what actually is a chair? A thing with four legs? Some chairs have none. If chairs are things that we sit on, do antique chairs lose their chairness once they get retired? In the end there are some situations in which a traditional dictionary proves useless: we have to settle for the idea that we’ll know a chair when we see one.

Ebenezer Cobham Brewer was unsatisfied with this. A formidably knowledgeable Nottinghamshire resident with an enviable beard, he spent twenty years trying to find his own unique solution.

Cobham Brewer had returned from Cambridge and, like his father, gone on to become headmaster of a school in his native Norwich. After the death of his wife, he upped sticks across the country to live with his daughter and son-in-law, who was the Vicar of Edwinstowe by Sherwood Forest. Something about that vicarage of St. Mary’s, which had been the site of a church since the 7th century and had been, according to legend, Robin Hood’s wedding venue, has acted as a bit of a fountain of lexical magic in our county. As recounted in John Baird’s fantastic book Follow the Moon and Stars, one later resident was Cecil Day-Lewis, Poet Laureate and father of chameleonic method actor Daniel.

Like many busy minds Cobham Brewer worked nocturnally there - well into his eighties he stayed up scribbling until ‘three or four in the morning,’ in the recollection of his son-in-law. ‘He always declared that he did his best work then - but he was always down to breakfast dead on time at nine o’clock’. Long before the QI Elves whispered in Stephen Fry’s earpiece, Cobham Brewer was the self-described ‘snapper-up of unconsidered trifles’.

Of all the dictionaries in the world [Brewer's] is the most like a treasure-hunt, where one phrase leads to another, and that to a third, and before you know what's happened, it's time for lunch

As an avid collector of trivia both profound and profane, Ebenezer had made it his life’s business to bury his surroundings with scraps of paper: ‘These jottings,’ he said, that ‘I keep sorted in different lockers’. He wallpapered his small vicarage bedroom, stuffed paper into alphabetised bundles, slowly decanted the world into droll slices of miscellanea.

Ebenezer Cobham Brewer’s idea for an offbeat encyclopaedia was long in the making. As a young man in Norfolk, he’d published his Guide to the Scientific Knowledge of Things Familiar, the proceeds of which had allowed him to go on a swashbuckling Grand Tour across Europe, to cast his magpie-eyes over all sorts of new continental factoids, rumours and ephemera.

He arrived at the real summit of his life’s work in 1870: the publication of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. ‘Doubtful speculation,’ scoffed his publisher Mr. Cassell, ‘quite beyond the wildest reach of the imagination’ - naturally, it went on to be a Victorian best-seller. Ebenezer Cobham Brewer’s book had a unique tone - moreso than a traditional dictionary he thought of it as a ‘commonplace’, a sort of all-purpose notebook that you’d carry around with you to jot down interesting facts, diary entries and questionable poetry, the precursor of your iPhone’s Notes app.

It was the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable which made Brewer’s name - and with editors like Countdown’s Susie Dent renewing the book in the many decades since, it’s kept swelling. Its popularity isn’t too hard to fathom - there’s something in the opinionated slant of its entries that gets at the true mistiness of language. Here’s ‘Boredom’:

Boredom appears to have been invented around the middle of the 18th Century. No doubt people had been bored before then, but evidently they could not be bothered to think of a word for it (the nearest approach to it is perhaps accidie, a medieval term…)

This warm avuncular tone of voice, the crackling-fire chattiness of a retired professor, has attracted many high profile fans, like Terry Pratchett, JK Rowling and Philip Pullman, who went on to edit one edition. Pullman wrote:

‘Of all the dictionaries in the world [Brewer's] is the most like a treasure-hunt, where one phrase leads to another, and that to a third, and before you know what's happened, it's time for lunch.’

Words won’t stop moving, and so that treasure-hunt will go on. There’s never been a better time to realise how fickle our language truly is - as Orwell noted, words can be used ‘to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind’, and we might notice that a ‘peace march’ is only ever two syllables from ‘mob rule’, and vice versa.

In Ebenezer Cobham Brewer’s approach, then, there is something wonderfully honest. To treat a dictionary not as a religious text, but as a rogue’s gallery or an address book of unreliable friends. Chasing the uncapturable, one notebook at a time.

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