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BOOK REVIEW: The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce

The Devil's DictionaryThe Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

Like all dictionaries, it’s a collection of words and meanings, but this one is much more fun to read. Before it was compiled into a book, these entries were serialized in newspapers from 1881 to 1906. As might be expected, some of the definitions / jokes didn’t age well. However, a great many of them are as amusing as ever. In fact, because so many of the definitions revolve around people’s narcissism and self-serving biases, they may be more accurate and apropos than ever. (And lawyers and politicians continue to be fair game as the butt of a joke.)

 

Let me give a few examples of the aforementioned narcissism:

ABSURDITY, n. A statement or belief manifestly inconsistent with one’s own opinion.

ACQUAINTANCE, n. A person whom one knows well enough to borrow from , but not well enough to lend to…

ADMIRATION, n. Our polite recognition of another’s resemblance to ourselves.

 

Not all of the definitions revolve around humanity’s narcissistic worldview. While subjects like politics, economics, and religion are widespread, the entries cover the wide range of subjects one might see in your regular dictionary. e.g.:

CLARIONET, n. An instrument of torture operated by a person with cotton in his ears. There are two instruments that are worse than a clarionet—two clarionets.

CORPORATION, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.

ECONOMY, n. Purchasing the barrel of whiskey that you do not need for the price of the cow that you cannot afford.

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

LOVE, n. A temporary insanity curable by marriage…

TELEPHONE, n. An invention of the devil which abrogates some of the advantages of making a disagreeable person keep his distance.

 

Despite being a work of the 19th century, Bierce held a more rational and scientific outlook than typical, and this can be seen in many definitions–some of which were probably considered outlandishly irreverent in the day. This helps to keep “The Devil’s Dictionary” relevant. e.g.:

FAITH, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.

FEAST, n. A festival. A religious celebration usually signalized by gluttony and drunkenness, frequently in honor of some holy person distinguished for abstemiousness.

GHOST, n. The outward and visible sign of an inward fear.

MIND, n. A mysterious form of matter secreted by the brain. Its chief activity consists in the endeavor to ascertain its own nature…

MONKEY, n. An arboreal animal which makes itself at home in genealogical trees.

MULATTO, n. A child of two races, ashamed of both.

OCEAN, n. A body of water occupying two-thirds of a world made for man—who has no gills.

PRAY, n. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.

 

In addition to the definitions, there are many segments of verse or prose used to elaborate on the definitions. These excerpts are usually clever, humorous, or both. There are no graphics and so these snippets are the only use of examples and clarification provided. e.g.:

re: EPIGRAM: “In each human are a tiger, a pig, an ass, and a nightingale. Diversity of character is due to their unequal activity.”

I would highly recommend this book for those who like humor with language.

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