( Originally written and posted on MySpace on March 30, 2008 )
Frequently, during the last few minutes before I go to bed, I turn to the Rev. E. Cobham Brewer’s The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Giving the Derivation, Source, or Origin of Common Phrases, Allusions, and Words that have a Tale to Tell. First published in 1870, it had grown to more than 1300 pages in length by 1894 when it appeared in its "Classic Edition." (This version was reprinted by Avenel Books in 1978, the edition from which I quote.) Brewer is far from being soporific, rather more relaxing. At times, though, entries appear which are really unexpected. Consider, for example, the following:
"Enchanted Castles. De Saint Foix says that women and girls were subject to violence whenever they passed by an abbey quite as much as when they approached a feudal castle. When these victims were sought for and demanded back, the monks would sustain a siege rather than relinquish them; and, if close pressed, would bring to the walls some sacred relic, which so awed the assailants that they would desist rather than incur the risk of violating such holy articles. This, he says, is the origin of enchanters, enchantments, and enchanted castles. (Historical Essays.)"
This reminds me of the "liberal" monks who inhabit today’s academic abbey. They hold aloft to all challengers the sign "Equality!" That is supposed to be enough to stop in their tracks all inquirers who might dare to think for themselves. While we recognize equality of rights for individuals and groups, as well as equality of opportunity as a desirable goal, the denizens of today’s academic abbey expect one and all to bow before this holy relic proclaiming that all individuals and groups are equal in their inherent abilities.
I could say as much against those "conservatives" who uphold the holy relic of "Free Enterprise," a state of the economy which never existed and never will exist. What a blessing it would be if we had more true liberals, people who believe in being free thinkers about all topics, and authentic conservatives, people who know that what should be conserved is something more basic and primordial than the economic system of capitalism.
Getting back to Brewer, there are occasional entries which are really puzzling. Consider the following brief entry, which seems to involve a reversal of reality: "Poe (Edgar Allan). The alias of Arthur Gordon Pym, the American poet. (1811-1849.)" Did Brewer put this in his dictionary to catch any miscreant who might plunder his work for materials to produce a dictionary under a different name?