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).
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…