From A-line to Zwinglian

There are many fascinating volumes in the reference library but a firm favourite for many is Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable.

It’s brilliant for the cruciverbalist, writer, journalist, student, and quiz-setter alike, but most of all for the casual reader: once you’ve started browsing, you just can’t stop. Every page reveals hidden gems; you are compelled to cross-reference, cross-cross-reference, double-check, turn back, and before you know it you’ve read the thing from cover to cover (no mean feat: the latest edition is 1,460 pages).

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It’s a triumph of informative, witty, insightful, brief,  intelligent and fascinating writing, rewarding the reader with many “so –that’s-what-that-means” moments. Open it at random and your eye is caught by:

Grey hen, A. a stone bottle for holding liquor. Large and small pewter pots mixed together are called hens and chickens.

Joe Sixpack: A Us term for the ordinary beer-drinking working man (a sixpack contains six cans of beer)

Baker’s cyst: a firm, fluid-filled lump the size of a walnut behind the knee…

There are lists galore:

Nouns: A murder of crows. A business of ferrets. A charm of finches.  A clowder of cats. A murmuration of starlings. An exaltation of larks (plus many more!)

Organ stops: Bourdon, low and booming. Clarabella, bright and fluting. Cor de nuit, lowish and metallic. Dulciana, soft and string-like. Unda maris, soft and tremulous.

Pasta: Bucatini, (“little holes”) small thin hollow tubes. Linguini, (“little tongues”). Ravioli, (“little turnips”) small square envelopes stuffed with filling. Ziti, (“bridegrooms”) medium-sized tubes…

Modern expressions too, are listed and give pause for thought: the phrase “Extraordinary Rendition” is dissected as  “a masterpiece of the euphemizer’s art, cloaking the unpalatable in the polysyllabic obscurity of words used with pompous literalness”: a definition that writer Phillip Pullman, the author of the 18th edition foreword, called “a little gem of scorn”.

So if you want to find out who Walter Plinge is, how to make Red Biddy, or where you can visit Blackstable, Knype or Thrums, ask for Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable from your reference library and settle down for a good read…



The Lord Mayor’s Show

City of London Royal Crest
City of London Royal Crest

Following immediately after Halloween and Bonfire night is another great spectacle that of the Lord Mayor’s Show.

Our collection of books on customs cover great ceremonial occasions and the Lord Mayor’s show is one of the best. It takes place annually on the second Saturday in November and this year it falls on 10th November – best of all its free!

The post of Lord Mayor of the City London dates back more than 700 years and it was in the reign of King John who needing the support of the city in 1215 against rebellious barons gave the citizens of London the right to elect their own Mayor.

As the choice of Mayor has to be approved by the monarchy, each year (he or she) proceeds through the city to swear and oath of loyalty at the Royal Courts of Justice.

Gog and Magog
Gog and Magog

Up until 1453 the procession went through the City of London and was a great public holiday. One of the highlights of the procession was a chariot containing the two fearsome giants, Gog and Magog, who normally lived at the Guildhall. They represent the ancient legend that London was founded in the year 1000 by Trojan invaders after they had been helped by the two giants. Apparently these were made of wickerwork and were frequently eaten by the rats in the city. Therefore in 1708 two wooden figure were carved which unfortunately were later destroyed in the Blitz – luckily another pair were made and can still be seen in the Guildhall.

River Pageant
River Pageant

After this date the Lord mayor travelled to Westminster by barge in a river pageant – similar to the one we saw this year for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Apparently some of barges were so big that in one report they could hold a dinner and dance for eighty people. There were musicians, flags and guns firing along the way and on some occasions there were boats with dragons casting fire over the water. Unfortunately the river pageant ceased in 1856 and it went back to the processional route along the streets.

Mansion House in London
Mansion House

The Lord Mayor now travels through the City from Mansion House the official residence of the Lord Mayor to the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand and returns in procession to Mansion House to hold a huge banquet. He travels in a richly decorated state coach. The coach was built in 1757 and cost the grand sum of £1065 0s 3d. It weighs over 3 tons and is 19.8 metres long (approx 65 feet).

Illustration of the Lord Mayors Coach
Lord Mayors Coach

The procession is held each year and there is great account in the Illustrated London News of 17th November 1883 describing all the floats. You can also find them on our online database Times Digital Archive which include such wonderful phrase as “the window of the houses were filled with persons mostly ladies of most respectable appearance” and in the procession an “ancient knight mounted on a charger armed cap a pie in suit of polishes tell armour and plumed”.

Illustration of Dick Wittington
Dick Wittington

Some famous Lord Mayors include Richard (Dick) Whittington who really was Lord Mayor three times and which I have found out was worth the amazing sum of £7000 at his death in 1423. Sir William Walworth, was the Lord Mayor who killed Wat Tyler during the peasants revolt of 1381. One of the more inept Mayors was Sir Thomas Bludworth who famously underestimated the impact of a small fire in Pudding Lane in 1666, the result of which was the burning down of most of London, more famously known as the Great Fire.

More information:

Bibliography for the above blog post, was done using the following references:

  • Roud, Steve, London Lore the legend and traditions of the world’s most vibrant city , London, (Random House) 2008
  • Brentnall, Margaret, Old customs and ceremonies of London, Norfolk, (B.T Batsford Ltd) 1975.
  • Hayward Girtin, T, The Lord Mayor of London, London, (Oxford University press) 1948
Karen Ullesperger, Triborough Reference Manager
Karen Ullesperger

Karen Ullersperger, Tri-Borough Reference Manager