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“Never say die” and dictionaries for the living

“Never say die” and dictionaries for the living

Last week, I promised to write something about idioms in dictionaries and on that note finish my discussion of English set phrases (unless there are questions, suggestions, or vociferous cries for more). Where do you find the origin and, if necessary, the meaning of never say die, never mind, and other phrases of this type? Should you look them up under never, say, die, or mind? Will they be there? And who was the first to say those memorable phrases? Nowadays, people search for answers on the Internet, but the Internet does not generate knowledge: it only summarizes the available information and various opinions. We also wonder: Is never say die an idiom? Never mind probably is.

The oldest genres of idioms are proverbs (a friend in need is a friend indeed) and so-called familiar quotations(more in sorrow than in anger), neither of which has been at the center of my interest. The Greeks and espeiclly the Romans produced memorable phrases the moment they began to speak. Life is short, art is long. Good friends cannot be bought. A water drop hollows a stone. As long as I breathe, I have hope. How true! Excellent dictionaries of such phrases (“familiar quotations”) exist, but, as I have noted, not they will concern us today. We are returning to the likes of the phrases I have cited more than once: to kick the bucket, in apple-pie order, to go woolgathering, not room enough to swing a cat, mad as a hatter, and so forth. Dictionaries of idiomatic phrases are many. The best of them explain the meaning of such outwardly incomprehensible locutions, sometimes quote the books in which they occur, and explain their origin if something is known about that subject, but most focus on meaning and usage.

Not everybody goes woolgathering.
(Image by M W from Pixabay, public domain)

General (all-purpose) dictionaries like Webster’s and the OED include set phrases as a matter of course, but, though they offer the user the etymology of words (even if all they can say is “origin unknown”) idioms often remain without any historical notes. My prospective dictionary, though a rather thick book, contains slightly more than a thousand idioms (a drop—a pretty heavy drop— in the bucket, or, as they say in German, a drop on a hot stone), but its purpose is to sift through all the existing conjectures about the origin of each item and support, if possible, the most reasonable one. Its main merit is the critique of multifarious conjectures, some of which are excellent, and some are downright stupid. As I said in the previous post, no etymological algebra is needed here. Try to find out whether hatters were ever mad, who tried to swing a cat and failed for want of space, what apple-pie order means, why we should mind our p’s and q’s, and the riddle will be solved.

I’ll begin my rundown on the sources with the most recent one known to me. Allen’s Dictionary of English Phrases (Penguin, 2006; its author is Robert Allen) is comprehensive and reliable. Though etymology was not Allen’s main objective, he never neglected it, and, in discussing conflicting hypotheses, showed excellent judgment. He mined the riches of the OED and many other sources, while I mainly followed journal publications for four centuries and cited dictionaries as an afterthought. (Allen also occasionally used Notes and Queries, my main source of inspiration.) While I am on the letter A, I should mention G. L. Apperson, the author of the book English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases (London: Dent, 1929). Apperson was an outstanding specialist, and his book is a joy to read.

More than enough room to swing a cat.
(Image by Veronica Kaiser from Pixabay, public domain)

Perhaps the most famous and also the thickest book in this area was written by E. Cobham Brewer. His Dictionary of [Modern] Phrase and Fable (1894, a drastically revised version of the book first published in 1870) is the only one of his many once popular works that has not gone with the wind. A copy of it was on “every gentleman’s desk,” as they used to say at that time. Anyone who sought information about “phrase and fable” consulted Brewer. A learned man, he did one unforgivable thing: he explained the origin of idioms without referring to his sources. Many of the explanations are reasonable, but as many are unacceptable. The latest, severely abridged edition appeared in 2011. The information in even this volume should be treated with caution, but the editors had no choice, because the flavor of the original work had to be preserved.

Brewer’s competitor, but on an incomparably more modest scale, was Eliezer Edwards, the author of Words, Facts, and Phrases: A Dictionary of Curious, Quaint, and Out-of-the Way Matters (London: Chatto and Windus, 1882). Not much in that collection is quaint, and even less is out of the way, but nothing works like an attractive title. The dictionary was much used, but it never enjoyed the popularity of Brewer’s magnum opus. At that time, people appreciated miscellanies containing heterogeneous “nuggets of knowledge.” This book, like Brewer’s, is dogmatic: Edwards gave no references in support of his derivations: he explained the origin of idioms as he saw fit.

Among the reference books published before the Second World War two should be mentioned. 1) Albert M. Hyamson, A Dictionary of English Phrases…. (London: Routledge, New York: Dutton, 1922.) The corpus is huge, but the etymologies are not always reliable for the same familiar reason: the user rarely knows whether the explanations are the author’s or common knowledge, or borrowed from some of the dictionaries he referred to. The uncritical approach to etymology is the main drawback of this genre. 2) Alfred H. Holt, Phrase Origins: A Study of Familiar Expressions. (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1936.) Despite its title, this work contains numerous entries on individual words. The book can still be recommended because of its cautious approach to the material. Holt used various sources, and when he ventured his own hypotheses, he always said so.

Not every brewer searches for words and phrases.
(Image, left: E. Cobham Brewer via Wikimedia Commons; right Beer sommelier at work at Nebraska Brewing Company, via Wikimedia Commons)

An often-used collection is a three-volume book by William and Mary Morris, Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins. (New York: Harper and Row, 1962-1971.) William Morris was the Editor-in-Chief of the first edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, but the dictionary of word and phrase origins can hardly be called a success, because many explanations are unreliable, and the references to the authors’ sources are very few. A more rewarding fruit of teamwork is Dictionary of Idioms and Their Origins by Roger and Lina Flavell (Kyle Cathie, 1992). The origins are explained without reference to the sources, but most of them are acceptable. Last but not least, mention should be made of Charles Earl Funks’s Curious Word Origins, Sayings & Expressions from White Elephant to Song and Dance. (New York: Galahad Books, 1993.) The huge volume (988 pages, with excellent illustrations strewn generously all over the text) includes the author’s three earlier books: A Hog on Ice, Heaven to Betsy!, and Horsefeathers. The second part is only about words, but the first and the third deal with idioms. Some entries are quite detailed.

It will be only fair to mention the three collections that were especially often consulted in the past. They are John Ray, A Compleat (sic) Collection of English Proverbs (1678), George Bohn’s (1796-1864), A Handbook of Proverbs by John Ray, a radical reworking of Ray’s pioneering work, and English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases by W. Carew Hazlitt (1834-1913).

The list at my disposal is very long, and reproducing most or the whole of it might only bore our readers. The fragment presented above gives an adequate idea of the state of the art, and those who are interested in the study of idioms may “make a note of it,” as Captain Cuttle, a memorable character in Dickens’s novel Dombey and Son (1846-1848) used to say. His favorite phrase—”When found, make a note of it”—was chosen as the motto of the British periodical Notes and Queries, which began to appear in 1849 and turned out to be a treasure house of letters on all things under the sun, including the origin of English words and idioms. 

Featured image by Dan Parsons via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Recent Comments

  1. cameron

    a cultural footnote: Charles Earle Funk’s book _A Hog on Ice and Other Curious Expressions_ would appear to have inspired songwriter Tom Waits while he was writing the material on his album Rain Dogs. Many of the idioms discussed in that book occur in the lyrics to songs on that album – too many for it to have been a coincidence.

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