Various editions of this book are available online in digitized form. But that shouldn't stop you from getting your own physical copy. Nothing can rival the joy of browsing through it - you're bound to learn something fascinating along the way. As Terry Pratchett says in the Foreword, it's a storehouse of "little parcels of serendipitous information of a kind that are perhaps of no immediate use, but which are, nevertheless very good for the brain."
First published in 1870, Brewer's has flourished for over a century. It has always been the reference book that "reaches the parts others cannot", the option you try if what you are looking for is not in a standard dictionary or encyclopedia. Even if you don't find what you'relooking for, chances are you'll uncover something even more interesting. The fact that it has reached its 17th edition (published in 2005) suggests that it clearly meets a need, even if its exact scope can be hard to pin down precisely. Certainly, one need look no further with a question about ‘traditional’ myths and legends – from the Erymanthian boar to the Swan of Tuonela, from Aarvak and the Abbasids to zombies and Zoroastrians, they’re all covered. The latest edition updates the mythical pantheon to include such creatures as the Balrog and Nazgûl, Voldemort and Dumbledore, the Psammead and Zaphod Beeblebrox, to name only a few.
This edition incorporates many new features to tempt the reader —a listing of idioms from Spanish, French, and German, first lines in fiction, assorted sayings attributed to Sam Goldwyn, curious place names in Great Britain and Ireland, the dogs, horses, and last words of various historical and fictional figures. So, while looking for information on freemasonry, you may find yourself diverted to learn that French people don’t dress to the nines – instead they put on their thirty-one, perhaps in preparation for a bout of window pane licking (window shopping). And if that femme fatale you met last night stands you up this evening, it may be that she has other cats to whip. Or it could be that she has received a messenger from Rome (who might be called Aunt Flo by an English speaker).
But as always, it’s the weird tidbits, stumbled across by sheer accident, that are the real delight. For instance, I could certainly have gotten through my entire life without knowing about the blue men of the Minch . But knowing that they are legendary beings who haunt the Minches (the channels separating the Outer Hebrides from the rest of Scotland), occasionally bothering sailors, enriches my life. The added information that they are either kelpies or fallen angels, and are reputed to drag mariners to the bottom of the sea if they fail to answer questions in rhyming couplets (in Gaelic, naturally), fills me with unutterable glee.
As do most of the entries in this terrific reference book.