I found an old friend in the attic last week — “Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.”
I discovered “Brewer’s” in the summer of 2002, when, as a neophyte journalist (an elaborate way to say I had no idea what I was doing), I used the excuse of my new newspaper job and biweekly pairs of paychecks — severance pay from my old job and my new Review pay — to buy hardcover reference books at Borders at The Strip.
Reference books have charmed and captivated me most of my life, starting with those red-covered Thorndike-Barnhart dictionaries and Hammond world atlases in elementary school, followed by my first thesaurus, a paperback Roget’s, and first French-English dictionary, Christmas presents in ninth grade when I was taking my first year of French and metamorphosing from a child reading Hardy Boys mysteries and Weekly Reader Book Club tales to a teen finding a new fascination with adult fiction, especially Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe and mythology, which I came to know through ninth-grade literature.
I have loved books all my life. I cherish books for their information, for the way they transport me away from myself and my mundane world, and for their physical presence — the appearance of the cover, the smell of the paper, and the feel and heft of a book in my hands — a passion harking back to preschool, when my mother gave me a picture book of Bible stories.
And because I love language I love reference books. I still have that first thesaurus and that first Flammarion French-English dictionary, and next to them on the shelf is the mass market paperback edition of the American Heritage Dictionary that I bought at a convenience store in North Canton a month before high school graduation.
I used dictionaries sporadically over the years, but that day at Borders in 2002 sparked an intense passion that continues to this day. As I said, using the excuse of my new job, I bought the matching set of Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary 11th Edition and Merriam-Webster Collegiate Thesaurus with leather-like covers, and while exploring the reference section I discovered “Brewer’s.”
Dr. Ebenezer Cobham Brewer published his first “Dictionary of Phrase and Fable” in 1870. It was, as Editor East Wheal Russell states in the preface to the 1970 Centenary Edition, “an authoritative companion for those with literary interest and catholic tastes,” “catholic” here being minuscule (lower case) and meaning “of broad or liberal scope,” according to the “American Heritage College Dictionary.”
It is that Centenary Edition that I found in my foray to my attic last week, but the book I bought at Borders in 2002 was the newer 16th, its cost a whopping $50 but now going for about $3 used on Amazon. My receipt came to more than $100 that day, but I needed these books for work, and of course I had those twin paychecks coming in every two weeks.
Thus began my serious dictionary collecting, and on Dec. 3, 2002, I found the Centenary Edition of “Brewer’s” at E&C Books on East Main Street in Alliance. That older edition became my work “Brewer’s,” and over the years it has contributed to many of my columns in my quest for polymath-dom. (I learned the term “polymath,” a person with encyclopedic learning, when I read about Joseph Banks accompanying Capt. James Cook on his 18th-century voyages of exploration, and I settled on that as a lifelong career goal. “Brewer’s” is the type of book you can open at random and get lost jumping from q.v. to q.v., forgetting why or where you started — you live in the moment of biblio-exploration.
And if you’re wondering where I’ve been, if I perhaps had shuffled off this mortal coil, I stopped writing The Scriptorium after having surgery in February and did not resume for reasons I won’t discuss here. I never planned to simply stop my column without some fitting farewell, but inspiration remained out to lunch until recently, when several compliments on an old column I put on Facebook made my head swell so my cap wouldn’t fit, writing being the only antidote to cranial inflation. And thus returns The Scriptorium, a phoenix bedecked with words, not feathers, risen after its hiatus pentamensis.*
* A period of five months, a term I coined using the Greek penta, five, and Latin mensis, month.
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