Dictionary of Phrase and Fable by Ebenezer Cobham Brewer
In August of last year, I wrote about a variety of resources that might be useful to fantasy writers. Recently, I came across another resource that I found so amusing, so educating, so irresistible, that I had to share it: Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.
This Dictionary was inspired by Ebenezer Cobham Brewer’s habit of jotting down notes about whatever interested him while reading widely across fiction, history, and more. From these notes, he constructed a collection of about 16,000 entries exploring history, quotations, allusions, idioms, myths, fables, fictional characters, and more. And it’s that whimsical, almost random, collection of facts that attracted me to it.
It’s also the same appeal Sir Terry Pratchett (who wrote the foreword to the 16th edition) and Phillip Pullman (who wrote the foreword to the 18th edition) found in the Dictionary. Neil Gaiman also recently wrote about how he and Pratchett would pounce on any of Brewer’s books that they could find.
Let me give you a hint of Brewer’s style. Under the entry for Aeschylus, you can learn that, “According to legend he was killed when an eagle dropped a tortoise onto his head, mistaking it for a stone on which the shell could be broken” (readers of Pratchett’s Small Gods might recognize that incident). Under the entry for Emerald, you can learn that “According to legend an emerald protected the chastity of the wearer. It also warded off evil spirits and epilepsy, cured dysentery, and was supposed to aid weak eyesight.” An entry for Lolita follows Loki, and an entry for Gandalf precedes “G and T” (Gin and tonic, See also B and S). And as Pullman points out, some definitions are snarky and snide. For example, Extraordinary Rendition is described as “a masterpiece of the euphemizer’s art, cloaking the unpalatable in the polysyllabic obscurity of words used with a pompous literalness.” As some of the above examples demonstrate, older entries have been dropped, and newer entries have been added over time. But the more recent editions have rescued some of these older, “heritage” entries.
Thankfully, through library book sales and used book stores, I’ve acquired a “heritage” edition (a reprint of the 1894 edition) as well as Pratchett’s 16th edition. But no need to go scouring used book stores to find a copy of the Dictionary (I mean, unless you want to. I make that sound like a chore—I’m sure many of you, like me, would jump at the chance to lose a few hours in one). That older edition is now in the public domain, and you can view it online. You can also find a copy of his A Dictionary of Miracles, Imitative, Realistic, and Dogmatic online. However, you’ll have to buy a copy of his Rogues, Villains, and Eccentrics: An A-Z of Roguish Britons Through the Ages and his Dictionary of Irish Phrase & Fable.
In their respective forewords, Pratchett and Pullman talk about getting lost in the Dictionary. Pratchett compares reading Brewer’s Dictionary to eating peanuts: eating one is impossible, you keep going back for more. I couldn’t agree more. This isn’t your typical dictionary that you turn to for one, specific word before returning it to the shelf. This is a dictionary you cuddle up with, fall into, and come up for air hours later.
I’ve read several books that talk about how writers need to periodically refill their creative well by exposing themselves to new things: new ideas, new myths, new forms of art, new styles, new genres. The idea is that this seeds the artist’s subconscious, so that at some later date, ideas will grow and blossom, ready to be plucked for a new product. This Dictionary lets me refill my well quickly. Moreover, the entries are far more diverse than most museum exhibits or collections, detailing topics from around the world, not just one region or time frame. And after reading a few (dozen) random entries, it’s almost impossible to not start thinking of new stories, new magic systems, and new character traits. Each one of these 16,000 entries is a story prompt waiting to spark something new.