Ebenezer Cobham Brewer

by Marnanel Thurman

Sometimes, when I read about people from the past, I wonder what it was like to have a conversation with them. Can you imagine going out to get fish and chips with Carl Linnaeus, for example? You'd be chatting about something, and all of a sudden you'd hear him gasp "Oh, Veronica," so you'd look round and he'd be on his hands and knees saying, "My goodness, a hitherto undiscovered variety of speedwell!" And of course it's rather easier to imagine what Johnson was like to meet socially, since that's how so many of his biographers observed him.

Another such person is a Baptist minister named Ebenezer Cobham Brewer (1810-1897), the owner of an inquisitive mind, a formidable beard, and one of the strongest things in the world: a good habit. As he read, and he read a great deal, he would write down every question that crossed his mind. When he found the answer, he would write it on the same piece of paper, then file it. You may imagine that paper files formed a large part of his life, and also a large part of his house.


In his mid-twenties, he collected many of these questions together into a popular science manual entitled A Guide to the Scientific Knowledge of Things Familiar. This sold so well that it enabled him to leave Norwich and travel around Europe, investigating and learning. Because the book also brought him into the public eye, he began to receive a great deal of correspondence about questions the book had raised, which nourished his files still further.

He returned to England at the age of forty-six, to begin his greatest work: Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Many of the questions he had considered were about mysterious allusions in his reading; what did this phrase mean? or what story was referred to there? He determined to answer as many as possible, in alphabetical order. The job took fourteen years. Even though he was sixty by the time the book was published, he went on to produce a revised edition in 1891 at the age of seventy-four.

It's still in print, and I urge you to get yourself a copy if you can-- it's easily found second-hand. Discovering Brewer enriched my childhood; I would wander through his pages and learn things fascinating enough that it didn't matter how useless the knowledge might be. It often came in useful, though, years later. And Brewer's own touch is on every line: you really can imagine that it would have been much the same to have a chat with him, darting from subject to subject with the dazzling randomness of a dragonfly.