Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

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The 18th edition of the dictionary, published in 2009

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, sometimes referred to simply as Brewer's, is a reference work containing definitions and explanations of many famous phrases, allusions, and figures, whether historical or mythical.

The "New Edition revised, corrected, and enlarged" from 1895 is now in the public domain, and Web-based versions are available online.

The most recent version is the 20th edition, published in November 2018 by Chambers Harrap Publishers.


Originally published in 1870 by the Reverend E. Cobham Brewer, it was aimed 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. On top of this, Brewer added notes on important historical figures and events, and other things which he thought would be of interest, such as Roman numerals.

Although intended as a comprehensive reference work, early editions of Brewer's are highly idiosyncratic, with certain editorial decisions suggestive of the author's personal bias. For instance, a list under the entry for John purported to show the bad luck associated with that name, ending "Certainly a disastrous list of Popes" despite several being described merely as "nonentities". Some entries seem so trivial as to be hardly worth including, and others are almost definitely apocryphal.

Despite this inconsistency, however, the book was a huge success, providing information often not included in more traditional dictionaries and encyclopedias. A "New Edition revised, corrected, and enlarged" of 1440 pages was published by the author in 1895,[1] not long before he died. Since then, it has been continually republished, often in anastatic reprint, with the 15th edition being the first to make truly wide-scale changes to the content.


  • 1st (1870): E. Cobham Brewer
    • (Several times reprinted, mostly with no date)
  • "New Edition revised, corrected, and enlarged" (1895): E. Cobham Brewer
    • (Reprints: 1896, 1897, 1898, 1900, 1901, 1902, 1904, 1905, 1906, 1907, 1909, and others with no date)
  • 2nd (1953)
  • 3rd (1954)
  • 4th (1956)
  • 5th (1959)
  • 6th (1962)
  • 7th (1963)
  • 8th (1963)
  • 9th (1965): John Freeman
  • 10th (1968)
  • 11th "Centenary Edition" (1970), revised by Ivor H. Evans. ISBN 0304935700
  • 14th (1989)
  • 15th (1995): Adrian Room. ISBN 0062701339
  • 16th "Millenium Edition" (1999) : Adrian Room. ISBN 0304345997
  • 17th (2005): John Ayto. ISBN 0304357839
  • 18th (2009): Camilla Rockwood. ISBN 9780550104113
  • 19th (2012): Susie Dent. ISBN 9780550102454[2]
  • 20th (2018): Susie Dent. ISBN 9781473676367[3]

Brewer's Dictionary of Modern Phrase and Fable[edit]

This retitled and updated version, initially edited by Adrian Room, was first published in 2000 (ISBN 978-0304350964). A second edition (ISBN 978-0550105646), edited by Ian Crofton and John Ayto, was published on 30 November 2010.[4] While this title is based on the structure of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, it contains entries from 1900 onwards and exists alongside its parent volume as a separate work.[5]

Other special editions[edit]

A variety of spin-off editions has been published in the past, some straying quite far from the theme of 'phrase and fable', such as Brewer's Dictionary of Cinema (1997) and William Donaldson's A–Z of 'roguish Britons', Brewer's Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics (2002). Brewer's Dictionary of London Phrase and Fable was published in 2009 and Brewer's Dictionary of Irish Phrase and Fable was reissued at the same time.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ This edition is opened by a reproduction of the Brewer's autographed "Preface to the New and enlarged Edition of 'Phrase and Fable' 1894", which is dated "Autumn 1894".
  2. ^ "Mini-review: Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable - Miscellany". 2012-10-05. Retrieved 2018-07-29.
  3. ^ "Susie Dent - Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (20th edition)". Retrieved 2018-11-25.
  4. ^ publisher's site Archived December 11, 2014, at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ Rockwood, Camilla (2009). Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 18th Edition. Edinburgh: Chambers Harrap Publishers. 1488pp. ISBN 978-0-550-10411-3. Archived from the original on 2011-07-08. Retrieved 2009-08-12.

External links[edit]