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HALL OF FAMEon 29 December 2005
'The Devil's Dictionary' is an interesting, very intellectually cynical collection of proposed definitions to words collected by Ambrose Gwinett Bierce, a journalist, writer, Civil War veteran, and general misanthrope, who disappeared without a trace in Mexico about 1914. In the words of H.L. Mencken, Bierce has produced 'some of the most gorgeous witticism of the English language.' Bierce delights in irreverence and poking fun at all aspects of life.
Bierce's own definition of dictionary gives some insight into his general thought patterns:
'Dictionary, n. 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.'
This would lead us to conclude (most correctly) that Bierce is a world-class cynic. What is a cynic?
'Cynic, n. 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.'
Originally published under the title 'The Cynic's Word Book', most of the definitions in this book originally appeared as part newspaper columns. There have been many imitators, but this is the first and finest collection. Arranged as a dictionary, it provides an interesting writer's tool for finding a unique perspective on words and phrases. There are more than 1000 entries. A few examples include:
'Outdo, v.t., To make an enemy.'
'Universalist, n. One who foregoes the advantage of a Hell for persons of another faith.'
Fair warning -- those who do not like cynicism and scathing wit will find this book irritating, and sometimes offensive. Bierce is a product of his generation; political correctness wasn't in vogue then, and, even if it had been, Bierce would have been one of the sharpest critics.
As a Christian priest, I take great delight in the insights from Bierce's criticism of religion in general, and Christianity in particular.
'Christian, n. One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the needs of his neighbor. One who follows the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.'
Why does this ring so true? Of course, there is the old adage that if you scratch a cynic, you'll find an idealist. Bierce would undoubtedly have described himself as a realist, but buried beneath many layers of cynicism, one can sense the idealism.
Why did Bierce go to Mexico? Perhaps his underlying idealism led him to a country that was awash in revolutionary ideas; perhaps those ideas are what cost him his life. Perhaps he went underground? It is possible we will never know.
The publisher of this volume, one of but many reprints of the text over time, says: 'The caustic aphorisms collected in "The Devil's Dictionary" helped earn Ambrose Bierce the epithets Bitter Bierce, the Devil's Lexicographer, and the Wickedest Man in San Francisco. The words he shaped into verbal pitchforks a century ago--with or without the devil's help--can still draw blood today.'
This book is very useful for generating ideas for writing and reflection. It is a good counterpoint to 'guides to positive thinking' kinds of material, and can serve as a tempering agent on such collections.
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Last week I was watching an episode of Lewis in which a character described politics as a "strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles". Although he indicated that the thought wasn't original, he didn't have time to mention that he was quoting from this collection of epigrams. Its author has been described as a Yankee Oscar Wilde, although his nickname - "Bitter Bierce" - suggests that the theme of his writing was less varied and more cynical than that of that warm-hearted, legendary wit.

A book like this is made to be read and quoted piecemeal - in fact, reading it all the way through is rather like trying to ingest a crate of lemons - so the best way to give some idea of its contents is to simply quote a few of the (many) definitions that remained in my mind after reading it:

Backbite: To speak of a man as you find him when he can't find you.

Peace: In international affairs, a period of cheating between two periods of fighting.

Effect: The second of two phenomena which always occur together in the same order. The first, called a Cause, is said to generate the other - which is no more sensible than it would be for one who has never seen a dog except in the pursuit of a rabbit to declare the rabbit the cause of a dog.

Congratulation: The civility of envy.

Absurdity: A statement or belief manifestly inconsistent with one's own opinion.

Wedding: A ceremony at which two persons undertake to become one, one undertakes to become nothing, and nothing undertakes to become supportable.

Exile: One who serves his country by residing abroad, yet is not an ambassador.

Christian: One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor.

And finally:

Quotation: The act of repeating erroneously the words of another. The words erroneously repeated.

People who like this sort of thing will find (in the words of Abraham Lincoln) this is the sort of thing they like. I do, although, as noted above, a little goes a very long way. Reading too much of it at one sitting will cause you to muse upon the disappointments and frustrations in the author's life, which are helpfully discussed in a little introduction to this edition. It also contains the searing, savage pen-and-ink illustrations of Ralph Steadman, which gives rise to perhaps the most ironic (though - given Bierce's sardonic view of the world - entirely characteristic) thing about the book - to wit, a comment on its back cover by Raymond Briggs which reads, in its entirety:

"A superb book. Steadman has always been one of my heroes."
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on 26 January 2012
I wanted a clean, well set out version of this classic for my Kindle, so I trusted the claims of ease of navigation and professional layout by the publisher.
The table of contents has been crudely pasted at the start, as is the content: THERE IS NO TEXT FORMATTING; i.e. indents or line spacing that even my grandchildren can achieve on their 'front page' homework assignments. The result is a block of text that is hard to read and even harder to navigate; clicking chapter breaks didn't work on my reader.
There are cheaper, more user friendly versions here - in fact, all of them are probably better, though I advise downloading a sample because many versions are just pasted in with little care paid to formatting.
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on 24 November 2011
Ambrose Bierce, who mysteriously disappeared during a reported expedition to link up with Pancho Villa, left the world two great gifts: his beautiful short story "An Incident at Owl Creek Bridge" and "The Devil's Dictionary", this little volume of his definition of words and terms that reveal to the reader the full thrust of Bierce's clear-eyed vision of all that was wrong in the US and all that ought to be made right.

"The Devil's Dictionary" should be, if not at every man's bedside, then at least have pride of place on that little shelf beside his w.c. where inspirational works are left for the greater edification of he who there takes his restful ease.
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on 3 January 2014
This was a gift for a friend - I have the exact same edition, and this way I can refer to the exact page if I want to point something up. The Devil's Dictionary is a unique book - not simply 'humour', it is wise and pointed as well as funny. How does anybody live without it?
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on 7 January 2011
This is a very poorly formatted edition. Variable fonts, page breaks everywhere, words appearing from nowhere and footnote references with no hyperlink. amazon should not be charging for this sort of rubbish. the book itself is of course fantastic, but buy the print edition unless a better Kindle version can be found.
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on 11 April 2013
I am a long time admirer of Ambrose Bierce and this book is a must read for any middle aged (or aspiring) cynic. Well worth reading. Bierce gives a rollicking account of what people really mean when they say things, that is every bit as valid in modern society as it was when written!
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on 4 August 2013
I'd always wanted to read Ambrose Bierce's work having heard excerpts from it in the past. It doesn't disappoint although some of his definitions are now somewhat dated and refer to events which we do not now recognise.
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on 17 September 2012
This is a fabulous book! I've really enjoyed the cover and also the edition is perfect.
And the lovely devil on the cover simply makes me laugh!
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on 10 October 2014
Dry, witty, sour. Full of the kind of quotes you want for your after-dinner speech. Some less funny than others, but worth it nonetheless.
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