March 31, 2015 by libroshombre
Humans just have to name the objects and creatures we encounter, including ourselves. How we choose those names, even pronouns, like “I,” “you,” and “them” is interesting. For instance, how do you talk to yourself when stressed. “Pronouns Matter When Psyching Yourself Up,” a recent Harvard Business Review article, noted that “Some people seem to have an amazing ability to stay rational no matter what … while the rest of us waste energy doing things like panicking about upcoming tasks.” Researchers from Harvard, Michigan State, and UC Berkley carried out experiments that reveal a major keyto keeping cool is how you name yourself.
When talking to themselves, some people refer to themselves in the first person, using “I” or “me,” as in “what am I going to do now?” They’re also more likely to fold up under pressure than those who refer to themselves using a second- or third-person pronoun, as in “what are you going to do now?”, or by their personal name. The studies showed that we perform significantly better under duress if we’ve psyched ourselves up beforehand with a pep talk that simply doesn’t include “I” or “me.”
There are other ways we think of ourselves. Some writers employ pen names, for example. In that regard no one has equaled Daniel Defoe, author of “Robinson Crusoe” and no less than 545 novels, poems, and pamphlets, many under amusing pseudonyms. DeFoe, whose real name was “Foe,” wrote political screeds for anyone with money. He boasted at least 198 pseudonyms, including gems like, “Anti-bubbler, Betty Blueskin, Count Kidney-Face, Tom Manywife, Furioso, and Tea-Table.
“Compiler” was how Ebenezer Cobham Brewer thought of himself. After graduating from Cambridge and being ordained, Brewer returned to the family home and an uncertain future. However, he continued his favorite hobby. “I have always read with a slip of paper and a pencil at my side, to jot down whatever I think may be useful to me,” he wrote, “and these jottings I keep sorted in different lockers. This has been a life-habit with me.”
In 1838, the year he moved home, Brewer compiled some of these notes into “A Guide to the Scientific Knowledge of Things Familiar.” It became a bestseller and funded his subsequent extensive European travels. A prodigious reader, Brewer published another compilation, “The Readers Handbook of Allusions, References, Plots, and Stories,” in 1896, the year before his death. His magnum opus, or greatest work, was “Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable,” which is reverentially known among generations of reference librarians simply as “Brewer’s. He intended it for the 19th century’s growing numbers of literate people who didn’t have advanced educations but wanted to comprehend the allusions and references made by the educated classes. The first few editions were, as described by Wikipedia, “highly idiosyncratic, with certain editorial decisions highly suggestive of the author’s personal bias.”
New, updated editions of “Brewer’s” are still being published. Now known as the “Dictionary of Modern Phrase & Fable, 19th edition,” its current editor, Susie Dent, says, “it is not just a reference book, nor is it a single read; it is not entirely objective … it is not a straightforward dictionary, nor is it an encyclopedia. It is, in fact, unlike any other reference book that exists, anywhere.
But, oh, what a joy to browse! It’s a hefty, squat book, and every page is packed with intriguing entries. For instance, looking up “Samhain” pronounced “sown, like “gown,” (the Celtic celebration of the harvest and beginning of their new year, which evolved into our Halloween) on page 1218, I found “Sam Hill” (“A US euphemism for ‘hell’), “Sampford Ghost” (“An uncommonly persistent poltergeist that haunted a thatched house … for about three years until 1810), and “The Samian Letter” (“The letter Y, used by Pythagoras as an emblem of the straight narrow path of virtue”), among others.
Although occasionally something of an “ultracrepidarian,” or “one who gives opinions beyond one’s area of expertise,” I believe Brewer’s slipped in neglecting the Curiosolites, a Celtic tribe on coastal France that sounded a promising place for librarians. But the Celts were illiterate. It’s more fun being a librarian among those book-loving Alaskans.