Ambrose Bierce: “The Devil’s Dictionary”

Back in the 1990s, I found this on sale at an airport bookstore. It was slim and looked easy to read. Because it was a “classic” and not a modern bestseller, they were offering it for a dollar, so I bought a copy for the flight home. What a deal!

Some of it is dated, for Bierce was writing to a late 19th century literary audience, but most of it is still hilarious today:

DELIBERATION, n.
The act of examining one’s bread to determine which side it is buttered on.

LAW, n.

Once Law was sitting on the bench,
And Mercy knelt a-weeping.
“Clear out!” he cried, “disordered wench!
Nor come before me creeping.
Upon your knees if you appear,
‘Tis plain you have no standing here.”

Then Justice came. His Honor cried:
“Your status? — devil seize you!”
“Amica curiae,” she replied —
“Friend of the court, so please you.”
“Begone!” he shouted — “there’s the door —
I never saw your face before!”

POSITIVE, adj.
Mistaken at the top of one’s voice.

Those are just three chosen at random. The book goes all the way through the alphabet in detail.

Bierce in 1866 (Wikipedia)

Bierce in 1866 (Wikipedia)

Ambrose Bierce, a Civil War veteran, was intensely cynical, and some of the definitions do leave a sour impression. He was also a product of his times, and there is some racism and sexism in there.

However, he was an honest cynic and also loved language, and thus his writing is meaningful for us today. Here is how he succinctly summed up a concern of all Americans in post-Civil War America (and indeed in most of the 20th century):

NEGRO, n.
The piece de resistance in the American political problem. Representing him by the letter n, the Republicans begin to build their equation thus: “Let n = the white man.” This, however, appears to give an unsatisfactory solution.

That’s worth reading today, so we can appreciate a little better all the pain and difficulties so many of those before us underwent before reaching a better (not perfect) solution today.

This book sometimes makes you think while you’re laughing.

My favorite definition is “story.” Bierce gives a brief definition and then writes five shorts (some call these “squibs”) to follow it, all of which together fit on a couple of pages. They’re all good.

Here are two:

One evening Mr. Rudolph Block, of New York, found himself seated
at dinner alongside Mr. Percival Pollard, the distinguished critic.

“Mr. Pollard,” said he, “my book, ‘The Biography of a Dead Cow,’
is published anonymously, but you can hardly be ignorant of its
authorship. Yet in reviewing it you speak of it as the work of the
Idiot of the Century. Do you think that fair criticism?”

“I am very sorry, sir,” replied the critic, amiably, “but it did
not occur to me that you really might not wish the public to know who
wrote it.”

Mr. W.C. Morrow, who used to live in San Jose, California, was
addicted to writing ghost stories which made the reader feel as if a
stream of lizards, fresh from the ice, were streaking it up his back
and hiding in his hair. San Jose was at that time believed to be
haunted by the visible spirit of a noted bandit named Vasquez, who had
been hanged there. The town was not very well lighted, and it is
putting it mildly to say that San Jose was reluctant to be out o’
nights. One particularly dark night two gentlemen were abroad in the
loneliest spot within the city limits, talking loudly to keep up their
courage, when they came upon Mr. J.J. Owen, a well-known journalist.

“Why, Owen,” said one, “what brings you here on such a night as
this? You told me that this is one of Vasquez’ favorite haunts! And
you are a believer. Aren’t you afraid to be out?”

“My dear fellow,” the journalist replied with a drear autumnal
cadence in his speech, like the moan of a leaf-laden wind, “I am
afraid to be in. I have one of Will Morrow’s stories in my pocket and
I don’t dare to go where there is light enough to read it.”

I hope someday I can write half so well as Ambrose Bierce did…without the cynicism.



Categories: Thursday Lit

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