Fowler and Brewer
[ Issue 30 ]

Fowler and Brewer fascinates Emily Bronto

Bikwil honours Fowler and Brewer

Fowler and Brewer

Harlish Goop confesses that in 1998 he committed an error: he confused two famous books.


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Mistaken Identity — Harlish Goop


It seems ages ago now — Bikwil Issue 7 (May 1998) — since I wrote what I considered a more than adequate introductory note when we inaugurated our series Down Limerick Lane.

My article includes the following passage:

H.W. Fowler helpfully gives us a specification of the limerick's form:

A nonsense verse in the metre popularized by Edward Lear in his Book of Nonsense (1846), of which the following is an example:

There was a young lady of Wilts,
Who walked up to Scotland on stilts;
When they said it was shocking
To show so much stocking,
She answered, 'Then what about kilts?'

Fair enough, you say. Indeed, so it seemed for years, during which time the quotation lay quietly in waiting among Bikwil’s archives, handy, perhaps, as a background piece for the casual limerick-attracted passer-by, but presumably unregarded as anything constituting a problem.

Until our editor received an email late in 2001, that is, which politely enquired as to which exactly of Fowler’s books Harlish Goop’s paragraphs came from.

Well, all too happy to oblige, I looked it up in the obvious place (his Modern English Usage), and guess what?

So I checked again, this time flicking back and forth through those pedantic pages, hoping to find a hidden reference to limericks — all to no avail, of course. While I was repeating the humiliating procedure (with equal success), an appalling idea suddenly occurred to me.

What if they weren’t Fowler’s words at all?

Oh, oh.

What if they were Ebenezer Brewer’s, say, from his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1870+)?

Yes, I know what you’re all thinking. How on earth, you’re marvelling, could bookish old H.G. have mixed up such dissimilar works? They are, after all, designed for different purposes: the one to give counsel on the proper use of English, the other to provide a compilation of otherwise hard-to-track-down literary, historical and miscellaneous other information (e.g. English idioms).

The simple reason for any possibility of my confusing the two works is this: I learned of both on the same day from a friend who produced them from his shelves to search for clarification of a couple of points that had arisen in conversation. From that moment they’ve been inextricably interconnected in my mind, so much so that whenever a question comes up that either authority might conceivably answer I have to quickly ask myself which I should call upon.

But despite their differences, the occasional overlap does occur. When it does, you can bet your sweet bippy that Fowler will say something contemptuous, while Brewer will stick to the facts. All of which is consistent with their aims, I suppose.

Here’s a case in point: the Italian phrase dolce far niente. Brewer gives the translation (“delightful idleness”), plus a similar Latin phrase, and leaves it there. Fowler, on the other hand, relegates the phrase to the rubbish-heap he entitles Battered Ornaments. There it languishes to this day, along with such phrases alma mater, in durance vile, gang agley and sleep of the just.

Another example of an overlap occurs with Fowler’s entry on Sobriquets. You know, such “secondary names” as Coeur de Lion (for Richard I), Gilded Chamber (House of Lords), Senior Service (Navy), Warrior Queen (Boadicea), etc.

Many of these can be looked up individually in Brewer without occasioning any risk of rebuke, but Fowler sternly advises against their use, since they’re “a very serious symptom of perverted taste for cheap ornament”. Typical.

Don’t get me wrong: Fowler is not my pet aversion. There are parts of MEU that are actually worth reading. Articles I particularly like include Humour, Love of the Long Word, Metaphor, Subjunctives . . .

Here are some favourites from Brewer: Black, God, Heretic, Horse, Seven, Tricolour . . .

Well, as you’ve long since deduced and precisely as I’d feared, the limerick information is a Brewer quote. I can only assume that on the day in question in 1998 I had been looking in both, and later forgot which had supplied the quotation.

As far as the email request went, then, there was little I could do but draft an apology to my enquirer, together with an abject entreaty for forgiveness.

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