BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

As I've noted numerous times in the past, one of the best uses of the Dover Thrift Editions (aside from nudging an Amazon order up over $25 to get free shipping) is that I can, for a couple of bucks, fill in some hole in my education. I've been aware of Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary since high school, but aside from seeing the occasional quote from it, I'd never had a copy, and the last time I was looking to make shipping disappear on a book order, I opted to pick this up.

Now, as one might expect, this is a dictionary, so there's not much to talk about in terms of concepts, flow, etc. It starts with “A” and works its way to “Z” over something north of a thousand words. Although he was a reasonably prolific writer, The Devil's Dictionary is probably Bierce's best-known work to the general reader. This is perhaps due to his life and career paralleling that of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), who was by far the more famous of the two. Bierce was also more of a critic, and was known to indulge in bitter/biting prose rather that humor of Twain. Unlike Twain (who had headed West to avoid the unpleasantries of the Civil War) Bierce was a military man, having served half a decade in the Union army. He is presumed to have died in the pursuit of a story, having gone down to Mexico in the middle of their revolution, where he simply disappeared.

Since this is just a collection of definitions (albeit rather arch takes on things), I figured the best way to represent the book here would be to excerpt the bits that seemed most appealing to me. I am taking the liberty of shortening some of these, and omitting the questionable poetry (variously and, I'm sure, spuriously attributed to fictional names) that accompanies some of these So …
Abrupt, adj. Sudden, without ceremony, like the arrival of a cannon-shot and the departure of the soldier whose interests are most effected by it.

Abscond, v.i. To “move in a mysterious way,” commonly with the property of another.

Cannon, n. An instrument employed in the rectification of national boundaries.

Connoisseur, n. A specialist who knows everything about something and nothing about anything else.

Consul, n. In American politics, a person who having failed to secure an office from the people is given one by the Administration on condition that he leave the country.

Diaphragm, n. A muscular partition separating disorders of the chest from disorders of the bowels.

Dictator, n. The chief of a nation that prefers the pestilence of despotism to he plague of anarchy.

Diplomacy, n. The patriotic art of lying for one's country.

Fidelity, n. A virtue peculiar to those who are about to be betrayed.

Hand, n. A singular instrument worn at the end of a human arm and commonly thrust into somebody's pocket

Happiness, n. An agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another.

Hearse, n. Death's baby-carriage.

Heathen, n. A benighted creature who has the folly to worship something that he can see and feel.

Mammon, n. The god of the world's leading religion. His chief temple is in the holy city of New York.

Mayonnaise, n. One of the sauces which serve the French in place of a state religion.

Mind, n. A mysterious form of matter secreted by the brain. Its chief activity consists in the endeavor to ascertain its own nature, the futility of the attempt being due to the fact that it has nothing but itself to know itself with.

Piety, n. Reverence for the Supreme Being, based upon His supposed resemblance to man.
The pig is taught by sermons and epistles
To think the God of Swine has snout and bristles.
Politeness, n. The most acceptable hypocrisy.

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

Prescription, n. A physician's guess at what will best prolong the situation with least harm to the patient.

Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited.

Take, v.t. To acquire, frequently by force but preferably by stealth.

Un-American, adj. Wicked, intolerable, heathenish.

Zeal, n. A certain nervous disorder afflicting the young and inexperienced.
As noted, a good number of the “definitions” here are accompanied with poems, some as long as 50-60 lines. I suspect that these might be lampooning events and characters from the time of the individual entry's composition (this was serialized in weekly publications over the rather remarkably long run of twenty-five years, from 1881 to 1906), as the poems are only round-about illustrations of the associated words, with odd details, and unusual names or initials for their attributions. I'm guessing that there are “annotated” versions of this out there which pick some of that apart.

The Devil's Dictionary is widely available, with the Dover edition being a mere $3.50, but (given its vintage) I'm pretty sure you'll be able to find it free on-line somewhere. Obviously, “reading a dictionary” is not something that appeals to everybody (some folks demand plot and stuff), but this is an amusing read, and despite being rather slim (this printing comes to 144 pages), it might be a great thing for one's latrine library!

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Tags: book review
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