One of the most interesting and useful books that you will ever read was first compiled in 1870 by Dr. Ebenezer Cobham Brewer. While writing a series of educational books for children Dr Brewer began to sense there was a new type of reader out there, literate but not educated in the academic sense who wanted more from books than just pure entertainment. What they were looking for, Dr Brewer surmised, was self-improvement, moral guidance and the satisfaction of simple curiosity and enquiry.
Using a cut and paste method – cut with scissors and paste with glue, that is – Dr Brewer put together his first ‘Dictionary of Phrase and Fable’, a collection of assorted bits and pieces of folk knowledge, familiar expressions and celebrated customs along with generous helpings of philology, etymology, mythology and curiosities of science, history and human endeavour. His dictionary was – and remains still – a sweep net of knowledge, a browser’s paradise, a quiz fan’s almanac, a cruciverbalists compendium (look it up!) and a perfect book for bedside table or the loo – a book designed for dipping into and enjoying.
Dr Brewer said of his method of compilation, “I have always read with a slip of paper and a pencil at my side, to jot down whatever I think may be useful to me, and these jottings I keep sorted in different lockers. This has been a life-habit with me…”
To get a flavour of the book let’s see what the good Doctor has to say about Christmas.
25th December is Christmas Day although almost certainly not the day on which Christ was born, as is popularly supposed. The date was eventually fixed by the Church in A.D 40, the day of the winter SOLSTICE, which had anciently been a time of festival among heathen peoples. In Anglo-Saxon England the year began on 25 December, but from the late 12th century until the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar in 1752 the year began on LADY DAY, 25th March.
These boosters of post office and stationer’s revenues are of comparatively recent origin. W.C.T Dobson R.A is usually regarded as having sent the first such card in 1844. Sir Henry Cole and J.C Horsley produced the first commercial Christmas card in 1846, although it was condemned by temperance enthusiasts because members of the family group in the centre piece were cheerfully drinking wine. After Tucks, the art printers, took to printing them in the 1870s, they really came into VOGUE.
Christmas Day in the Workhouse
The popular title of the much parodied long narrative (twenty one verses) properly entitled In the Workhouse: Christmas Day, by George R Sims (1847-1922) It was frequently burlesqued in the days of the MUSIC HALL and subsequently.
It is Christmas day in the Workhouse, And the cold bare walls are bright With garlands of green and holly, And the place is a pleasant sight: For clean washed hands and faces, In a long and hungry line The paupers sit at the tables For this is the hour they dine.
h4. Mince Pies
at CHRISTMAS time are said to have been emblematical of the manger in which our Saviour was laid. The paste over the ‘offering’ was made in the form of a cratch or hay-rack. Southey speaks of-
bq. Old bridges dangerously narrow and angles in them like the corners of an English mince-pie, for the foot passengers to take shelter in.
Esprinella’s Letters,III, 384 (1807)
Mince pies is also RHYMING SLANG for “the eyes”
In English (also written Nowell), a Christmas CAROL, or the shout of joy in a carol: in French, Christmas Day. The word is Provencal nadal, from Lat. Natalem, natal.
Nowells, nowells, nowells! Sing all we may, Because that Christ, the king Was born on this blessed day
h4. Turkey see MISNOMERS
Turkeys do not come from Turkey but from North America and were brought to Spain from Mexico.
Not everyone cared for Dr. Brewer’s eclectic interests. His grandson Hunt Brewer wrote:
bq. “What a fussy old gentleman Dr. Brewer is. I find it very tedious to humour and be affable to him, he is so insufferably inquisitive and such an old gossip.”
Clearly Ebenezer Brewer was a man well ahead of his time. Not for him the dull stodgy pages of tedium that passed for Victorian literature. He was into the delights of fact and fable, tittle tattle and trivia and all those nuggets of knowledge that today are deemed necessary for a well rounded education. What a great pub quizzer he would have made!
Dr Brewer died at Edwinstone in Nottinghamshire on March 6, 1897 after a long life spent with his nose stuck into a book. His ‘Dictionary of Phrase and Fable’ survives to this present day, enlarged and edited over the years but still true to his wish that it remained an “alms-basket of words”. If you are stuck for as present to buy that nosy niece or enquiring uncle the 17th edition of this marvellous treasure is now available for less than £20 from most bookshops. Every page is a delight and a most suitable gift for anyone with a love of trivia pursued to the point of madness!