Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

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File:Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.jpg
The 18th edition of the dictionary, published in 2009.

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, sometimes referred to simply as Brewer's, is a reference work containing definitions and explanations of many famous phrases, allusions and figures, whether historical or mythical.

The "Revised and Updated Edition" from the 1890s is now in the public domain, and web-based versions are available online.

The most recent version is the 19th edition, published in August 2012 by Chambers Harrap Publishers.


Originally published in 1870 by the Reverend E. Cobham Brewer, it was aimed at the growing number of people who did not have a university education, but wanted to understand the origins of phrases and historical or literary allusions. The 'phrase' part of the title refers mainly to the explanation of various idioms and proverbs, while the 'fable' part might more accurately be labelled 'folklore' and ranges from classical mythology to relatively recent literature. On top of this, Brewer added notes on important historical figures and events, and other things which he thought would be of interest, such as Roman numerals.

Although intended as a comprehensive reference work, early editions of Brewer's are highly idiosyncratic, with certain editorial decisions highly suggestive of the author's personal bias. For instance, a list under the entry for John purported to show the bad luck associated with that name, ending "Certainly a disastrous list of Popes" despite several being described merely as "nonentities". Some entries seem so trivial as to be hardly worth including, and others are almost definitely apocryphal.

Despite this inconsistency, however, the book was a huge success, providing information often not included in more traditional dictionaries and encyclopedias. A revised and updated edition was published in 1896, shortly before Brewer died. Since then, it has been continually revised and reprinted, often In Facsimile, with the 15th edition being the first to make truly wide-scale changes to the content.

Editors of Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable:

  • 1st (1870): E. Cobham Brewer
  •  ?? (revised and updated; 1895/6): E. Cobham Brewer
Various editions were published between 1870 and 1895. The numbers from this point onwards are apparently counted from the 1895 revised edition

Brewer's Dictionary of Modern Phrase and Fable

Brewer's Dictionary of Modern Phrase and Fable (ISBN 978-0304350964), edited by Adrian Room, was first published in 2000. A second edition (ISBN 978-0550105646), edited by Ian Crofton and John Ayto, was published on 30 November 2010.[2] While this title is based on the structure of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, it contains entries from 1900 onwards and exists alongside its parent volume as a separate work.[3]

Other special editions

A variety of spin-off editions has been published in the past, some straying quite far from the theme of 'phrase and fable', such as Brewer's Dictionary of Cinema (1997) and William Donaldson's A-Z of 'roguish Britons', Brewer's Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics (2002). Brewer's Dictionary of London Phrase and Fable was published in 2009 and Brewer's Dictionary of Irish Phrase and Fable was reissued at the same time.

See also


  2. publisher's site
  3. Rockwood, Camilla (2009). Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 18th Edition. Edinburgh: Chambers Harrap Publishers. 1488pp. ISBN 978-0-550-10411-3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links