Tuesday, July 10, 2012


The other day on NPR, Diane Rehm rebroadcast a conversation with the editors of The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE). The fifth and final volume of this massive work was published in January, but I’d missed this interview. It became another “driveway moment.” You know, those shows or stories that are so interesting you sit in your car to hear the end of it. Except my husband and I weren’t in our driveway. We were at a rail trailhead, and we left the radio on and our car doors open while we hoisted our bikes down from the roof rack. 

Now, I could listen to a discussion of language shifts and regional slang for hours. It’s just so fascinating to watch English evolve. What do you call meat or other fillings in bread? A sandwich, sammidge, sangwich? If the filling is in a roll, do you call it a hero, sub, hoagie, torpedo, grinder, spunky? Of course, hubby and I wanted to call in with the little quirks we’ve come across—“all” used to mean “all gone” in Pennsylvania Dutch country, or the variations of “ayuh” (yeah) in New England. My grandfather’s dramatic pronunciation of “Gawd.” Or the odd Mennonite custom of dropping “to be” in phrases like “the car needs fixed.” Even my DIL’s addition of “the” to road numbers: the 309, the 202.  

Ever since My Picture Dictionary dropped into my five-year-old hands, I’ve loved dictionaries. I often get carried away when I go to look up a word, and find myself five columns down from where I started. I never throw one away, even when I buy an updated one; I still have my dad’s big old Webster’s from 1949. The gold title on the binding is nearly gone, and the dark blue fabric has faded to gray, but I won’t let it go. It carries the scents of my early home, the memory of my father’s big rough hands turning the fragile pages, and the mystery of words. 

Earlier this summer, a friend gave me a wonderfully strange lexicon: The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, by the Rev. E. Cobham Brewer, LL.D. The version my friend found at a yard sale is a 1978 facsimile of the 1894 edition, complete with random ink blots and lacunae. Given the good reverend’s interest in religion and literature, it includes many entries on assorted heresies and often goes into detailed discussions of minor characters in classic literature. But there are also some colorful terms and phrases from ordinary life: going by the marrow-bone stage, i.e. walking. (This expression is listed under “Bayard,” a horse of incredible swiftness, and is an alternative to the ironic “ride bayard of ten toes.”)

Beyond its obvious value in deciphering outdated or archaic terms and characters, Phrase and Fable provides a fascinating insight into what constituted the world of a well-educated Englishman in the late nineteenth century—a thorough knowledge of classical Greek and Roman literature, plus Moliere, Milton, Shakespeare, Scott. The book is also invaluable for tracing the origins of words—though sometimes the origins Brewer gives are suspect. Take, for instance, London, which he claims comes from the Celtic Luandun, City of the Moon. Two lines later, he admits “it would take a page to give a list of guesses made at the derivation of the word London.” So dip into this dictionary with a box of salt (skepticism) at hand. 

Above all, Phrase and Fable is a glimpse into the inquisitive, eclectic mind of a man of his times. I would love to eavesdrop on a conversation between him and another great scholar of language, J.R.R. Tolkien. Wouldn’t you? 

Either DARE or Phrase and Fable would make a wonderful gift for any writer. Put them on your wishlist and see what happens.