Cu­ri­ouser cu­ri­ouser...

Where else would you find Daleks, the Dalai Lama and Arthur Da­ley to­gether but in this bril­liantly bonkers dic­tio­nary?

The Irish Mail on Sunday - - MORE | BOOKS - CRAIG BROWN

Brewer’s Dic­tio­nary Of Phrase And Fa­ble (20th Edi­tion) Edited by Susie Dent Cham­bers €31.50 ★★★★★

Who­ever it was who said that you learn some­thing new ev­ery day had ob­vi­ously never read Brewer’s Dic­tio­nary Of Phrase And Fa­ble. Brows­ing through this lat­est edi­tion, I learned some­thing new ev­ery few sec­onds.

Don­ald Duck’s voice was cre­ated by a man called Clarence Nash. The phrase ‘flot­sam and jet­sam’ de­rives, via French, from the words to float and to jet­ti­son. The cor­rect term for a dab of tooth­paste is a ‘nur­dle’. There is a hill in the Lake Dis­trict called Great Cockup. Colour blind­ness is also known as Dal­ton­ism. The prog rock group Hawk­wind de­rived its name from a com­bi­na­tion of its singer’s aquiline fea­tures and his prob­lems with flat­u­lence. Fifty-five per cent of the Lon­don Un­der­ground is above ground. Tup­per­ware was in­vented by a farmer’s son from New Hamp­shire called Earl S Tup­per, who died in 1983. Billy Bunter’s mid­dle name is Ge­orge.

Who can fail to love a book that is jam-packed with such colour­ful and ran­dom in­for­ma­tion?

Brewer’s was the brain­child of the Rev­erend Ebenezer Cob­ham Brewer, a Vic­to­rian cleric. He as­sem­bled his dic­tio­nary by tak­ing his scis­sors to any piece of in­for­ma­tion that caught his fancy and then plac­ing it in one of any num­ber of pi­geon-holes in his of­fice.

Ebenezer Brewer’s cat­e­gories were ec­cen­tric to the point of mad­ness, with many top­ics listed un­der ti­tles so hap­haz­ard that they could only ever be chanced upon, rather than looked up. Susie Dent, the ed­i­tor of this, the 20th edi­tion, has stuck to this bonkers blue­print. This means that if you go in search of a par­tic­u­lar piece of in­for­ma­tion you are likely to be con­fronted by 100 other tit­bits be­fore you find what­ever it was you were ac­tu­ally af­ter.

For in­stance, if you wanted to find out the cor­rect term for a dab of tooth­paste, you would find it not un­der T for Tooth­paste or D for Dab but un­der W for What Do You Call? Mean­while, the hill called Great Cockup is listed un­der C for ‘Cu­ri­ous place names’, which is par­tic­u­larly mud­dling as vir­tu­ally ev­ery en­try in the dic­tio­nary’s 1,517 pages could just as well be clas­si­fied un­der Cu­ri­ous.

Any­one in a hurry for a fact or fig­ure will un­doubt­edly find this frus­trat­ing. If, for ex­am­ple, you couldn’t re­mem­ber the names of the Queen’s four chil­dren then you would prob­a­bly first try un­der R for Royal Fam­ily, only to find noth­ing be­tween Royal Ex­change and Royal Flush. So then you’d try Wind­sor, where un­der ‘House of Wind­sor’ you would be ad­vised to ‘see un­der HOUSE’.

Flick­ing back through 780odd pages, you’d even­tu­ally find House of Wind­sor be­tween House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and House Party. But though it men­tions that in 1960 the sur­name of the de­scen­dants of Queen El­iz­a­beth II was changed to Mount­bat­ten-Wind­sor, it fails to men­tion the names of the Queen’s chil­dren, which are, as far as I can see, nowhere to be found. On the dust jacket, the pub­lish­ers boast that ‘you will find an­swers to ques­tions you never thought you needed to ask’. Fair enough, but find­ing an­swers to ques­tions you are ask­ing may well take a lit­tle longer.

Brewer’s must be the only dic­tio­nary in the world that takes such a fierce de­light in its own ir­ra­tional­ity. At times, it is like step­ping into the topsy-turvy world of Al­ice In Won­der­land. Look up ‘Scram­bled Egg’ and it says, ‘See Brass Hat’. Why? Be­cause se­nior of­fi­cers in the ser­vices are known as ‘brass hats’ and the braid on the brim of the of­fi­cers’ caps is ap­par­ently ‘some­times nick­named “scram­bled egg”.’

‘Big girl’s blouse’ is listed some­where be­tween ‘Big­foot’ and‘ Big Mac ’. The Black Pan­thers are sand­wiched be­tween the Black Hole of Cal­cutta and Black For­est Gateau.

There is, I sup­pose, some sort of logic in fil­ing them all un­der ‘Big’. If, how­ever, you want to look up the ori­gin of the phrase ‘as bald as a coot’, you will find it not un­der B for bald or C for coot or S for sim­i­les but un­der ‘A’ for ‘As’, just be­fore ‘as clean as a whis­tle’ and ‘as high as a kite’.

Dent, of Count­down fame, has in­tro­duced brief def­i­ni­tions for up-to-the-minute words and phrases such as Selfie, Brexit, Tweet, Fake News, KFC and Click­bait. She re­minds us that Empty Chair has been trans­formed into a verb: ‘To leave a va­cant chair in place of some­one who has with­drawn from par­tic­i­pa­tion in a de­bate or pub­lic meet­ing, usu­ally be­cause of a dis­agree­ment or dis­pute’. But there are no­table ab­sen­tees: no eBay or Cor­bynista, for in­stance, and that use­ful con­tem­po­rary phrase ‘Virtue-sig­nalling’ is nowhere to be seen. Un­der B for Buff you will find en­tries for Blind Man’s Buff and In the Buff, but noth­ing about Buff’s cur­rent usage, to mean ‘toned’ or ‘hot’. In fact, ‘hot’, in that par­tic­u­lar sense, is also ab­sent, though many other hots – air, dog, pants, potato – are all dealt with.

The trou­ble with up­dates is that they them­selves soon need up­dat­ing. Dent pro­vides a six­line en­try un­der Beck­ing­ham Palace, ex­plain­ing that it is the face­tious nick­name for the lav­ish neo-Ge­or­gian man­sion in Saw­bridge­worth, Hert­ford­shire, ac­quired by ‘the quasi-royal cou­ple David and Vic­to­ria Beck­ham’; per­haps some­one should tell her that they sold it to an in­sur­ance ty­coon in 2014. Ms Dent also seems to think that the Great Train Rob­ber Ron­nie Biggs is ‘cur­rently be­ing held in Bel­marsh Prison’, which is odd, as he died five years ago.

Her for­ays into pop mu­sic are sim­i­larly patchy. The Bea­tles only merit 11 lines, com­pared to 13 for JR Hart­ley. Marc Bolan is wrongly spelled Mark Bolan. Madonna is given only eight words (un­der Pseu­do­nyms), two of which are wrong: her sur­name is Cic­cone, not Cic­cione, and her real first name is not Mary but Madonna, which means she shouldn’t re­ally be listed un­der ‘Pseu­do­nyms’ at all. On the other hand, the glo­ri­ous but pretty ob­scure Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band is mirac­u­lously ac­corded its own en­try – more than can be said for ei­ther Dy­lan, Elvis or The Rolling Stones. It’s good to know, though, that the pro­ducer Apollo C Ver­mouth, cred­ited on the la­bel with their only top 10 hit, I’m The Ur­ban Space­man, was in fact Paul Mc­Cart­ney.

On the soft-porn front, there is an en­try for Em­manuelle but noth­ing for Fifty Shades Of Grey. Among board games, Triv­ial Pur­suit has an en­try, but not the more re­cent – and in­fin­itely more fun – Jenga. On the other hand, I was in­ter­ested to learn that in 1994 some­one called David Wall sued the in­ven­tors of Triv­ial Pur­suit, say­ing they had stolen the idea from him, af­ter he had men­tioned it while hitch­ing a lift with one of them in 1979. ‘Af­ter years of wran­gling, the court ruled against Wall in 2007,’ con­cludes the en­try.

Cluedo, too, has its own en­try. Where else would you learn the true ages of the sus­pects? Pro­fes­sor Plum, we learn, is 38, and Rev­erend Green only 48. But then which of us would not look pre­ma­turely old af­ter be­ing ac­cused of mur­der on a daily ba­sis?

Pri­vate Eye has a good long en­try, which is as it should be, but the re­doubtable Viz is for some rea­son en­tirely ig­nored. The late Pres­i­dent GHW Bush pops up twice, with the same quote. The en­try for The

Wal­tons in­cludes, ‘In 1992, US Pres­i­dent Ge­orge Bush com­mented, “We’re go­ing to keep try­ing to strengthen the Amer­i­can fam­ily, to make them more like the Wal­tons and less like the Simp­sons”, and he is quoted us­ing just the same words in the en­try on The

Simp­sons. Sadly, the Simp­sons’ en­try fails to in­clude my favourite joke of theirs – a sign on a pet shop win­dow that says, ‘All our pets are flush­able’.

Of course, one of the plea­sures of re­view­ing any book of this sort lies in point­ing out mis­takes. But the pe­cu­liar joys of Brewer’s vastly out­num­ber its short­com­ings. Af­ter all, in what other ref­er­ence book in the world would you ever find the Dalai Lama, the Daleks and Arthur Da­ley all rub­bing shoul­ders on the same page?

pe­cu­liar joy: Wor­thy men­tions, clock­wise from above: Cluedo, Madonna, Arthur Da­ley, Al­ice, Daleks and Don­ald Duck

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