Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


FROM TIME TO TIME, I feel the urge to seek trivia. Not directed research on one thing or another. Just taking pleasure from unadulterated facts I really don’t need to know. 

I suppose random access of the Internet could provide this. But being the bibliophile that I am, I prefer a book. Not just any book, mind.

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, 20th Edition, by Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, Chambers, 2019.

Mine happens to be the 16th Edition, the Millennium Edition, 1999, but no matter. The indiebound website calls Brewer’s a “trademark blend of language, culture, myth and legend. Nowhere else could the histories of the guillotine and Guinness stout sit so comfortably alongside the KGB and the Keystone Kops.”

The Reverend E. Cobham Brewer assembled the first edition in 1870, aimed, Wikipedia says, “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.”

Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, 1810–1897, British lexicographer, graduate in law, Trinity College, Cambridge, ordained and schoolmaster associated with a Baptist congregation in Norwich.

Brewer’s 1st Edition was reprinted a goodly number of time between 1896 and 1909; a 2nd Edition didn’t appear until 1953, followed by sporadic others up to a 20th Edition first appearing in 2018. 

What’s more, Wikipedia notes, “The ‘New Edition revised, corrected, and enlarged’ from 1895 is now in the public domain, and web-based versions are available online.”

Brewer explained in later years, “I have been an author for sixty years, have written many books, and of course have been a very miscellaneous reader.”

I’ll say. Here are tidbits on my own “miscellaneous” reading of Brewer’s. It began with “Albion,” which happened to be the first word encountered in my skimming.

Albion. “An ancient and poetic name for Britain,” Brewer’s noted, “perhaps from the white (Latin albus) cliffs that face GAUL, but possibly from the Celtic alp, ‘rock,’ ‘crag.’ Albion or ALBANY originally might have been the Celtic name of all Britain.” (The full-cap words identify other Brewer’s entries.)

Then began Brewer’s fable portion: “One legend is that a giant son of NEPTUNE, named Albion, discovered the country and ruled over it for 44 years. Another story tells how 50 daughters of the king of Syria (the eldest of whom was named Albia) were all married on the same day and murdered their husbands on their wedding night. They were adrift in a ship as punishment and eventually reached this western isle where they duly married natives.”

Gee, I wonder if the locales knew about their nuptial proclivities. 

Brewer’s continues:  “New Albion. See under NEW. Perfidious Albion. See under PERFIDIOUS.”

This is getting better and better. 

Perfidious Albion. Brewer’s says, “An English rendering of the French la perfide Albion, referring to England’s alleged treacherous policy towards foreigners….  Its later currency stems from its wide use in the Napoleonic recruiting drive of 1813, and it was well established by the end of the war in 1815.”

When Wellington and others showed who was really perfidious.

The Battle of Waterloo, 1815. Painting by William Sadler II. 

New Albion. Here, Brewer’s gets us started on a real adventure: “The name under which Sir Francis Drake annexed territory in what is now California in 1579, during his voyage of circumnavigation. He recorded this act by setting up a brass plate. Such a plate was found near San Francisco in 1937. See also ALBION; DRAKE BRASS PLATE under FORGERY.”

Hmm… Do I sense more perfidy?

Fake. Drake Brass Plate, The.  Brewer’s picks up the tale with that plate: “In 1936 the plate was said to have been found near San Francisco and the inscription seemed to be reasonably authentic, although some authorities expressed doubt. A replica was, in due course, presented to Queen Elizabeth II, which is kept in Buckland Abbey, Drakes’s Devonshire property, now a museum.”

The Hondius map of 1589 depicts Drake’s California visit. Image from Smithsonian Magazine

Then comes the grabber: “In 1977 a reported analysis of the composition of the brass by the Lawrence Berkeley Institute of the University of California and the Research Laboratory for Archaeology at Oxford found that it was of late 19th- or early 20th-century manufacture.”

As I’ve noted before, se non è vero, è ben trovato. And thanks, Brewer’s, for the trivia. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2022 

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