The Ecphorizer

An English Trivialist
John Cumming

Issue #10 (June 1982)

If one were to coin the word "trivialist" for a collector of odd and nonessential facts, certainly it would apply to E. Cobham Brewer. This indefatigable Englishman spent most of the nineteenth century rooting about in dusty libraries and issuing a stream of books filled with his

...the bride divested herself in church of all her clothes except her smock...

discoveries. In previous ECPHORIZERs I have reported on his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (February 82) and his Dictionary of Miracles (April 82); this month let us look at Brewer's Historic Notebook, last printed by Lippincott in 1895.

[quoteright]Brewer's plan of the Notebook was to create a "dictionary" of historic terms and phrases, together with "jottings of odds and ends of history." That is, the small stuff that historians generally leave out. He sought to explain briefly allusions to "historical events, acts of parliament, treaties, and customs, terms and phrases, made in books, speeches, and familiar conversations." A man of social conscience, Brewer also reserved the right to add annotations whenever he felt that a "national want or defect needs correcting." He concluded the Introduction to the Notebook with the following:

"If I may make a suggestion without being impertinent, I think the book would be admirably adapted to the upper forms of Ladies' Schools, and to those in private life who seek to extend their general knowledge, after having laid aside their elementary books."

But Brewer was not one to restrain himself from printing something he found interesting, even if its relationship to the stated plan of the work was remote. For example,

"Nameless Finger (the). The third finger of the right hand. The right hand fingers are the pointer, the long finger, nameless finger, little finger; of the left hand they are the pointer, long finger, ring finger, and little finger."

On the other hand, there is much of solid value in the Notebook. Fans of Katherine Anne Porter will be interested to read this entry: "Ship of Fools (the), or 'Narenschiff,' 1494, by Sebastian Brandt... An allegorical satire in verse in the Suabian dialect.., immensely popular at the time. It does not attack religious and moral delinquencies so much as social gaucheries..." After a brief description of the plot, Brewer concludes that "the moral to be drawn from this allegory is that abuse of printing will wreck the Earth." Hear, hear!

One of my favorite entries is under the heading "Just." It goes "Just (the). Louis XIII was so called, but no one knows why. He was a good shot, and a wit said, 'Il était juste à tirer de larquebuse."

"A Nation of Shopkeepers..." Brewer notes that Louis XIV said this of Holland, and Napoleon said the same of England, "but whether England or France is the more given to trade would be hard to determine. Probably the proportion of men independent of trade would be in favor of England; and without the least doubt the money-grabbing or commercial spirit in Frenchmen is very much stronger than it is in Englishmen. I lived eight or nine years in France, and mixed with all classes..." Brewer, like Samuel Johnson, put his heart in his books, and I love it.

He also had good Victorian starch. Under "Shaking Hands," Brewer notes that "in modern times the custom is English; most Continental nations salute with kisses." No wonder the English always stood aloof from Europe; joining the Common Market must have been quite a trauma for them. A similar disdain shows up in this entry: "Shakespeare of Harmony (the). Richard Wagner (1813-1864). This is a very exaggerated comparison."

Those who have witnessed modern "alternative" wedding ceremonies will be interested to read about the ancient custom of "Smock Marriages." These were ceremonies in which "the bride divested herself in church of all her clothes except her 'smock,' under the notion that the husband would not then be responsible for any of her debts."

The Historical Notebook went out of print in 1895, but Brewer's better known Dictionary of Phrase and Fable was re-issued in a Centenary Edition of 1970 and again in a Revised Centenary Edition in 1981. It appears that the modern editors drew on the Notebook for some of their amplifications and revisions of the more popular work. They also struggled to correct some of Brewer's rare errors. For instance, in the 1895 Edition, under "Gold," Brewer quotes Shakespeare thusly: "All that glitters is not gold." This line was fixed in the Centenary Edition by replacing the modern "glitters" with the proper word, "glisters." The editors then garbled a quote from Chaucer that was meant to illustrate an earlier expression of the same idea. Newer is not necessarily better.

These same editors got themselves into hot water by introducing an entry for "Custer's Last Stand" into the 1970 Edition of the Dictionary (Little Big Horn happened six years after Brewer published the original edition). Their account ended with the extraordinary assertion that "Custer alone was spared (as a blood brother of Sitting Bull), but shot himself." The Revised Centenary Edition of 1981 recants this bit of historical creativity, merely claiming that Custer's body was spared mutilation, "unlike most or all of the others." Editing can be a hazardous job.

Among the Victorians, with their boundless energy, Brewer created a niche for himself as the supreme trivialist. Anyone who took the trouble to read through the 40 works he wrote or edited (I have not) would come away with an unparalleled fund of useless information. Whether or not the effort would be worth it is, of course, another question. 

Dictionary maven John Cumming is looking for new literary worlds to conquer.  However, reports that he is going to start reviewing telephone books are premature.

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