Book Reviews

Book Review  

Title: The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.

Editor: Elizabeth Knowles.

Publisher: OUP, 2000.

Format: 1224pp

Guideline Price: £25.

ISBN: 0-19-860219-7.

Any publisher doing its own equivalent of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable has a hard act to follow.

This Oxford work was apparently first mooted way back in 1927, but became the Oxford Companion to English Literature (1932) instead. According to the Introduction, this new book has been able to draw on several previous Oxford reference books, including the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase, Saying and Quotation, the OED, the Dictionary of National Biography, and others. That may be part of its problem; in drawing from so many sources, it’s including too much, and getting far too far away from what it’s supposed to be: a dictionary of phrase and fable.

What, for example, are the Albigenses doing in here, or Alcatraz, or Alexandria—or Nazareth, Nazi or Nefertiti? These are straightforward one-volume encyclopaedia entries, and nothing much to do with phrase and fable.

But let’s see how the dictionary is organised. Generally it’s fairly well cross-referenced internally, so that, for instance, under the main entry rose the sub-entry rose-red city refers you to the entry for Petra (and John William Burgon’s poem). But as so often happens with reference works of this type, there’s the misconception that an alphabetically-arranged book doesn’t need an index. Wrong! As the 14th Edition (1989) of Brewer says of its index, “The main aim has been to make more accessible the vast store of information and anecdote tucked away under unlikely headings.” But here, if you’ve forgotten the name of the psychotherapeutic technique or the religion founded by L Ron Hubbard, for example, there’s no index to help; you won’t find them under Hubbard, which only refers to Old Mother Hubbard, even though both the Dianetics and Scientology entries mention their founder’s name. (But why are these in a dictionary of phrase and fable anyway, especially when Hubbard’s other profession, science fiction, which is both a literary genre and closely linked with fantasy, myth and fable, isn’t?)

In places the cross-reference system breaks down completely, and you begin to wonder whether the people who wrote individual entries were even speaking to each other. There are no cross-references between the entries for court of love, courtly love, troubador (sic) and trouvère; while the third of these is given its correct English spelling of “troubadour” in the entry for the second and is not even mentioned in the first. There is no entry at all for the phrase at the heart of troubadour poetry, fin d’amour. The entries for troubador and trouvère don’t mention langue d’oc and langue d’oïl—the distinguishing difference between them!—which in turn don’t mention the two types of poet by whom we know these languages. (Only if you happen to look up Provençal will you find “troubadour” and “langue d’oc” in the same paragraph.)   And without an index or comprehensive cross-referencing, how would you know to look up the gay science, “the art of poetry; from Provençal gai saber”? To end this special-interest byway, while one wouldn’t expect individual troubadours to be mentioned by name, the entry for their most famous patron Eleanor of Aquitaine doesn’t mention a single one of the other emboldened words in this paragraph.

Brewer itself has been updated many times, not always an easy job with a classic work; many readers actually prefer a reprint of the classic 1894 edition to modern updates. This Oxford equivalent has the advantage of being brand new. So (accepting the difficulty of guessing which current terms are likely still to be in use in a year or two, let alone decades on), what new words and phrases does it include? Here are just a sprinkle, taken at random: black hole (no date given), Blair Babes (1997), Chernobyl (1986; also Three Mile Island (1979), and also cultural Chernobyl, meaning “a cultural disaster”), Diana, Princess of Wales (plus People’s Princess, Queen of Hearts and Taj Mahal), Discworld, false memory (1990s), gazump (1970s, but surprisingly dating back to the 1920s with a slightly different meaning, and Yiddish in origin), Iron Lady (1976, from a Soviet newspaper), Millennium Dome (“reactions… continue mixed” is perhaps too topical a comment!), nostalgia ain’t what it used to be (1978), POSSLQ (“person of the opposite sex sharing living quarters”, 1978), Sloane Ranger (1970s), terminological inexactitude (Churchill, 1906, with no mention of the more recent usage by Thatcher’s Cabinet Secretary), WYSIWYG (1980s), X files (1993, with a mention of the phrase “The truth is out there”, which doesn’t have its own entry in what is after all a dictionary of phrases), and Yoda (plus Star Wars, Jedi, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader—five references to one film is perhaps slight overkill).

There are many oddities. There is an entry for the 8th century Arab chemist Geber, which goes on about his laboratory techniques (relevant in a dictionary of phrase and fable?) but has no mention in it of the supposed link between his full name Jabir ibn Hayyan and the English words “jabber” and “gibberish” (which, true or not, surely is relevant). And what possible reason is there for including smell, “the faculty or power of perceiving odours or scents by means of the organs in the nose; one of the five senses”—a standard dictionary entry—especially when the phrases “the five senses” and “sixth sense” aren’t in? Why include Test Act, Test-Ban Treaty and test match, but not “test-tube baby”? Why include the relatively unknown ladies who lunch but not the well-known “no such thing as a free lunch”? Why include the X files with its catchphrase, but not The Prisoner, with its phrase “I am not a number, I am a free man”? There’s an entry for Millennium bug, another for Year 2000 problem, but no mention of the far catchier “Y2K”. And once again, in a dictionary of phrase and fable, why have a biographical entry on Aleister Crowley, but not his famous phrase “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law”? Especially as the (now) less well-known original of the saying is mentioned under Abbey of Thélèma, cross-referenced to (but not from!) Rabelais.

There is a surprising carelessness in editing and/or proof-reading, for an OUP reference work. The two spellings of “troubadour” have already been noted; but how did no one spot the two quite separate and differently worded entries for Millennium Dome, one under M and one under D?

In case this reads as a very grudging and negative review, it should be said that despite its peculiarities, if you don’t already have a Brewer, this is an absorbing reference book in its own right. Its 1224 pages contain over 20,000 phrases and allusions, and with the Oxford sources available to its editor, it does contain a wealth of fascinating and often obscure information.

But a replacement for Brewer, it ain’t.

David V Barrett

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