17th Edition

One of the most interesting and useful books that you will ever read was first compiled in 1870 by Dr. Ebenezer Cobham Brewer. While writing a series of educational books for children Dr Brewer began to sense there was a new type of reader out there, literate but not educated in the academic sense who wanted more from books than just pure entertainment. What they were looking for, Dr Brewer surmised, was self-improvement, moral guidance and the satisfaction of simple curiosity and enquiry.

Using a cut and paste method — cut with scissors and paste with glue, that is — Dr Brewer put together his first ‘Dictionary of Phrase and Fable’, a collection of assorted bits and pieces of folk knowledge, familiar expressions and celebrated customs along with generous helpings of philology, etymology, mythology and curiosities of science, history and human endeavour. His dictionary was — and remains still — a sweep net of knowledge, a browser’s paradise, a quiz fan’s almanac, a cruciverbalists compendium (look it up!) and a perfect book for bedside table or the loo — a book designed for dipping into and enjoying.

Dr Brewer said of his method of compilation, “I have always read with a slip of paper and a pencil at my side, to jot down whatever I think may be useful to me, and these jottings I keep sorted in different lockers. This has been a life-habit with me…”

To get a flavour of the book let’s see what the good Doctor has to say about Christmas.


25th December is Christmas Day although almost certainly not the day on which Christ was born, as is popularly supposed. The date was eventually fixed by the Church in A.D 40, the day of the winter SOLSTICE, which had anciently been a time of festival among heathen peoples. In Anglo-Saxon England the year began on 25 December, but from the late 12th century until the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar in 1752 the year began on LADY DAY, 25th March.

Christmas cards

These boosters of post office and stationer’s revenues are of comparatively recent origin. W.C.T Dobson R.A is usually regarded as having sent the first such card in 1844. Sir Henry Cole and J.C Horsley produced the first commercial Christmas card in 1846, although it was condemned by temperance enthusiasts because members of the family group in the centre piece were cheerfully drinking wine. After Tucks, the art printers, took to printing them in the 1870s, they really came into VOGUE.

Christmas Day in the Workhouse

The popular title of the much parodied long narrative (twenty one verses) properly entitled In the Workhouse: Christmas Day, by George R Sims (1847-1922) It was frequently burlesqued in the days of the MUSIC HALL and subsequently.

It is Christmas day in the Workhouse,
And the cold bare walls are bright
With garlands of green and holly,
And the place is a pleasant sight:
For clean washed hands and faces,
In a long and hungry line
The paupers sit at the tables
For this is the hour they dine.