The Ecphorizer

Brewer's Yeast
John Cumming

Issue #06 (February 1982)


Time can render even the most prosaic reference work quaint and amusing, but Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, written by the Englishman F. Cobham Brewer, may have been a curiosity from the day it was published in 1870. Certainly the version I have examined, the Centenary Edition, must he a literary curio already, a scant eleven years after it was printed.

[quoteright'/>In relation to modern fads, one could say that Brewer's is a mine of trivia (without, we are relieved to observe, claiming to be such). In addition, the book is an amazingly rich source of lists without being so bold as to claim to be. In a sense, therefore, I regard this book of lists and trivia as a relic of an age when it was enough to declare by the title that this was one man's heap of favorite information, or an "alms basket of words," as Brewer himself put it.

For lovers of lists, Brewer's contains many delights. The Ten Great Persecutions (according to Orosius) are enumerated, and the list is expanded to include several famous ones that have occurred since the 5th Century. The task of updating this list of persecutions after 1870 apparently overwhelmed the modern editors, and a brief paragraph alluding to some of the more remarkable occurrences since then was all they could muster. On a lighter note, all perfect numbers from 1 to 40 million are given. A perfect number is one which is the sum of all its divisors, such as the number 6 (1+2+3). It's not a very long list.

All Giants of the Bible are listed, and pertinent data given, as well as giants of legend and literature. Also, "Giants of Other Note" are listed: very tall people whose existence is recorded, including Charlemagne, who is said to have stood almost eight feet tall and to have been able to crush horseshoes in his hands. Under the entry "The Great," everyone whom Brewer regarded as having claim to that title is listed in alphabetical order. The list begins with Abbas I, Shah of Persia (1571), and ends with Waldemar I of Denmark (1131). Mohammed Ali is not on the list, due to some oversight of modern editors, and there is no entry for "The Greatest." Under "Golden Age" Brewer's lists every country that has had one. In alphabetical order again, it begins with Assyria (c. 700 to 600 BC) and ends with Sweden (1523-1632). The list does not include the United States, suggesting that there is still hope that things might improve.

There is a fascinating entry under Gotham. The tale of the "Wise Men of Gotham" is told, about how they fooled King John into bypassing the town (thereby sparing themselves the burden of supporting the court) by acting in an idiotic manner whenever the royal messengers were about.

Under Bible, Brewer's lists a considerable number of editions, in two sections: the principal versions (King Jams, Douai, etc.) and "Some Specially Named Editions." The latter works include choice collector's item such as The Adulterous (or Wicked) Bible, wherein the word "not" was omitted from the Seventh Commandment. (This one must still be in wide use). Also the "Bug Bible," where Psalms xci.5 is translated "thou shalt not nede to be affrayed for eny buqqes by night"; "bugges" should have been "terrors" in this 1535 rendering. In the "Judas Bible" of 1611, Judas was substituted for Jesus in Matthew xxvi.36. Other fugitive editions have names such as "The Wife Hater's Bible," "The Murderer's Bible," "the He Bible," "The Forgotten Sins Bible," "The More Sea Bible," "The Denial Bible," 'The Treacle Bible" (wherein "tryacle" is substituted for "balm" in Gilead), and "The Fool Bible," the hapless printers of which were fined 3,000 pounds for impiety. If you want to know more about these, go read Brewer's yourself. Armed with stuff like this, one could sweep the field at trivia contests in the Bible Belt, or possibly get tarred and feathered. Elsewhere under Bible, we learn that the Leda Bible was published in 1572 and illustrated with images from an edition of Ovid's Metamorphoses. The decoration to the initial for the Epistle to the Hebrews is especially worthy of note, for it depicted Jupiter in the guise of a swan visiting Leda. The public was not amused, and the illustrations were dropped from later editions.

Anent other lists one can find, under Lions, the name of every person of historical note who was so styled. Elsewhere, the four corners of the earth are enumerated. The corners (one of which is placed in Ireland) are about 120 feet above the geodetic means and possess a gravitational pull measurably higher than surrounding regions. A list is presented, with explanatory notes, of "public house" (Pub) names. This compilation, running to almost three and a half columns, is considered important as a source of historical information about Britain. The list might also serve as a useful source of names for entrepreneurs planning to enter the cheap wine and charred steak trade in California. Among the quainter offerings are: The Cod and Bottle, The Pig and Whistle, The Red Cow, The Dog and Duck, The Running Footman, The Two Chairmen, The Bag 'o Nails, and the Who'd a Thought It. Mention is trade of the story that the present-day "Goat and Compasses" evolved, through a series of semi-literate sign painters, from the pious medieval name "God Encompasseth Us." There you have in microcosm the Decline of Modern Europe.

Throughout the book there are a lot of juicy oddities to read over. The origin of the expression "grey eminence" is explained, as is the root of the phrase "to cry stinking fish." There is a discussion of where Shakespeare got his definition of the word "flibbertigibbet." The meaning of "locofoco" is given, and a charming tale is told about the word "mumpsimus." There is even a section titled "Long Words," with the usual selection of academic, scientific, and Celtic oddities. Here is a final sampling from Brewer's:

Smith of Nottingham. Applied to conceited persons who imagine that no one is able to compete with themselves.

Gardy loo. The cry of warning formerly given by Edinburgh housewives and servants when about to empty the contents of the slop-pail out of the window into the street below. It is a corruption of the French gare de l'eau, beware of the water.

Ghost-word. A term invented by W.W. Skeat to denote words that had no real existence but are due to the errors of scribes, printers, or editors, etc . ... (also)... Intrusive letters that have no etymological right in a word but have been inserted through false analogy with words similarly pronounced (like the "gh" in "sprightly" or the "h" in "aghast"). 

Contributor Profile

John Cumming

john served as a medic in the Vietnam War then returned to Silicon Valley where he has worked as a tchnical writer and programmer at a number of Valley firms. In the 70s - 90s, John held many appointed and elected positions in local and national Mensa - notably as editor of the SFRM newletter Intelligencer and Local Secretary of SFRM, as well as serving as Regional Vice Chair for a number of years. John enjoys a good game of chess and likes nothing better than to curl up and read ancient or niche dictionaries, many of which are reviewed in these pages.




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