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"The Devil's Dictionary" by Ambrose Bierce

Updated on October 4, 2008

"The Devil's Dictionary" by Ambrose Bierce

Is a satirical book published in 1911. It offers reinterpretations of terms in the English language which lampoon cant and political double-talk.

The Devil's Dictionary has inspired many imitations both in its day and more recently. Recent examples include The Computer Contradictionary, The Devil's Dictionary X and Lucifer's Lexicon.

When Ambrose Bierce was a columnist in the San Francisco-based News Letter, a small weekly financial magazine which had been founded by Frederick Marriott in the late 1850s. The News Letter, although a serious magazine aimed at businessmen, contained a page set aside for informal satirical content, entitled The Town Crier. Bierce was hired as this page's editor in December 1868, writing with satire, irreverence and a lack of inhibition, thus becoming known as the 'laughing devil' of San Francisco.

Although the origins of the Devil's Dictionary are normally placed in 1881 (the point at which Bierce himself said it began) the idea started in August 1869 when Bierce, short of topics to write about and having recently bought a new copy of Webster's Unabridged dictionary, suggested the possibility of writing a "Comic Dictionary". He quoted the entry from Webster's for Viceregent and italicised the section,

Kings are sometimes called God's viceregents. It is to be wished they would always deserve the appellation

He then suggested how Noah Webster might have used his talent in a comic form and it was here that the idea of a Comic Dictionary was born.

The idea manifested itself in 1875 when Bierce, who had resigned as the Town Crier and had spent 3 years in London, returned to San Francisco in the hope of regaining his earlier journalistic post in the News Letter. He sent two submissions to the editor of the News Letter, both written under aliases, one of which was entitled The Demon's Dictionary and contained 48 words with new definitions in Bierce's trademark style of acerbic wit. Although forgotten by Ambrose Bierce in his compiling of the Devil's Dictionary, these entries were made available in the Enlarged Devil's Dictionary, which was first published in 1967.

In 1887 Bierce became an editor in The Examiner and featured "The Cynic's Dictionary," which was to be the last of his "dictionary" columns until they reappeared in 1904, when they continued erratically before finishing in July 1906.

A number of the definitions are accompanied by satiric verses, many of which are signed with comic pseudonyms such as Salder Bupp and Orm Pludge; the most frequently appearing "contributor" is "that learned and ingenious cleric, Father Gassalasca Jape, S.J., whose lines bear his initials".

Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce  June 24, 1842 – 1914
Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce June 24, 1842 – 1914

A Few Examples:

(Note: Since the material here represents the view of one individual and was written in the early years of this century, there will no doubt be material here that you will find sexist, nationalist, racist, or just generally offensive. Proceed at your own risk.)

Aborigines- Persons of little worth found cumbering the soil of a newly discovered country. They soon cease to cumber; they fertilize.

Abstainer- A weak person who yields to the temptation of denying himself a pleasure. A total abstainer is one who abstains from everything but abstention, and especially from inactivity in the affairs of others.

Arrest- Formally to detain one accused of unusualness.

Barometer- An ingenious instrument which indicates what kind of weather we are having.

Bore- A person who talks when you wish him to listen.

Cannon- An instrument employed in the rectification of national boundaries.

Cat- A soft indestructible automaton provided by Nature to be kicked when things go wrong in the domestic circle.

Christian- One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor. One who follows the teachings of Christ insofar as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.

Congratulation- The civility of envy.

Corporation- An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.

Cynic- A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be. Hence the custom among the Scythians of plucking out a cynic's eyes to improve his vision.

Dictionary- A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. This dictionary, however, is a most useful work.

Education- That which discloses to the wise, and disguises from the foolish, their lack of understanding.

Elector- One who enjoys the sacred privilege of voting for the man of another man's choice.

Friendship- A ship big enough to carry two in fair weather, but only one in foul.

Future- That period of time in which our affairs prosper, our friends are true and our happiness is assured.

Helpmate- A wife, or bitter half.

Hers- His.

Idiot- A member of a large and powerful tribe whose influence in human affairs has always been dominant and controlling.

In'ards- The stomach, heart, soul, and other bowels.

Insurrection- An unsuccessful revolution.

Justice- A commodity which in a more or less adulterated condition the State sells to the citizen as a reward for his allegiance, taxes and personal service.

Learning- The kind of ignorance distinguishing the studious.

Logic- The art of thinking and reasoning in strict accordance with the limitations and incapacities of the human misunderstanding.

Love- A temporary insanity curable by marriage.

Marriage- The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two.

Mayonnaise- One of the sauces that serve the French in place of a state religion.

Miss- The title with which we brand unmarried women to indicate that they are in the market. Miss, Missis (Mrs.) and Mister (Mr.) are the three most distinctly disagreeable words in the language, in sound and sense. Two are corruptions of Mistress, the other of Master. In the general abolition of social titles in this our country they miraculously escaped to plague us. If we must have them let us be consistent and give one to the unmarried man. I venture to suggest Mush, abbreviated to Mh.

Patience- A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.

Philosophy- A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.

Pray- To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled on behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.

Rational- Devoid of all delusions save those of observation, experience and reflection.

Religion- A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.

Road- A strip of land along which one may pass from where it is too tiresome to be to where it is futile to go.

Sabbath- A weekly festival having its origin in the fact that God made the world in six days and was arrested on the seventh.

Vote- The instrument and symbol of a freeman's power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country.

Witch- 1, an ugly and repulsive old woman in a wicked league with the Devil; 2, a beautiful and attractive young woman in wickedness a league beyond the Devil.

Youth- The Period of Possibility, when Archimedes finds a fulcrum, Cassandra has a following and seven cities compete for the honor of endowing a living Homer.

Youth is the true Saturnian Reign, the Golden Age on earth again, when figs are grown on thistles, and pigs betailed with whistles and, wearing silken bristles, live ever in clover, and cows fly over, delivering milk at every door, and Justice is never heard to snore, and every assassin is made a ghost and, howling, is cast into Baltimost--Polydore Smith.

Zeal- A certain nervous disorder afflicting the young and inexperienced.

Magnificent (A Video Definition)

Just for Entertainment Value: Beck "Devils Haircut" (Live from BizarreFest)

Comments

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  • mistyhorizon2003 profile image

    Cindy Lawson 

    10 years ago from Guernsey (Channel Islands)

    There are just so many excellent and funny definitions in this list, and I couldn't help but laugh out loud. A few of my favourites were "Bore", "Love", "God" and "Sabbath". Great hub :)

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