Although now recognised as an American classic The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce was never originally intended to even become a book and certainly not intended to be read like one. It is, as the title implies, a dictionary; but full of alternative definitions, normally humorous, often satirical and sometimes it has to be said just plain strange at least to modern readers. But before looking at the book itself it is a good idea to know something about Bierce himself and how it came to be written and that is not as simple a task as it sounds as implied by the first sentence of the book summary in my copy.
The life of Ambrose Bierce is a tissue of facts embroidered with legend.
Normally at least birth and death dates of a well known journalist and author such as Ambrose Bierce would at least be known but although we know that he was born in 1842 the best that can be done for his death is ‘probably 1914’ when he went to Mexico during the revolution and was never heard of again.
But lets backtrack over what is known. In 1861 he enlisted in the 9th Indiana Infantry and fought in the American Civil War apparently with distinction and it was thought that he would go to a military academy after the war and make that his career but he was already interested in writing. So in 1866 he apparently ‘tossed a coin to decide whether to stay in the army or become a journalist. Journalism won the toss.’ By this time his army career had brought him to San Francisco, and that is where he started to teach himself what he needed to know; and started writing pieces some of which made it to print. In 1868 he got his first regular journalistic job and in a roundabout way this was to lead to the book I have. The job wasn’t journalism as such in that it didn’t involve factual reporting of news, instead it was a page in the San Francisco News Letter entitled ‘Town Crier’ which was a humorous and satirical view of life in the city and Bierce was set on his path to fame. He would over much of the rest of his life continue to write satire for numerous publications and by 1869 he had included his first multiple definition entry of what would eventually be a book although at the time it was probably just a useful space filler for the Town Crier page.
Over the ensuing thirty plus years Bierce continued his definitions in his various columns in publications not just in America but also in England where he lived for 3½ years in the 1870’s. They became increasingly popular and also much copied with Bierce sometimes entitling them The Devil’s Dictionary or later on The Cynic’s Dictionary until the idea of combining them into a book came to him in 1903. By the time of publication however not only had his idea been stolen but even the title of his column had been used by a competitor to publish their own set of definitions so he was forced to use the title The Cynic’s Word Book when it came out in 1906. Oddly it only included 521 definitions for the letters A to L with an intention to have a second volume covering M to Z later on, however it didn’t sell well enough for this plan to be realised.
And so it stayed as an unfinished work until 1911 when Bierce was working on his collected works and volume 7 was entitled The Devil’s Dictionary, this time covering the entire alphabet and with 1000 definitions, some of which were specially written for the book especially at the end of the alphabet because over all of his columns Bierce had only reached the word shoddy.
Shoddy: n. (vulgus) A term that expresses the status of a large part of our society, and furnishes a weakly page of matter to many of our time-serving dailies.
*Weakly is as written and implies a certain disdain for many of his less talented rivals producing similar columns for other newspapers.
The collected works was also a financial failure but The Devils Dictionary was recognised as probably his finest work and after his death went on to be published as a standalone volume by several companies and establish itself as a major work of American humour.
We then leap forward to 1963 when Ernest Jerome Hopkins, after a long career as a journalist, became Professor Emeritus of Journalism at Arizona State University and after discovering that the title didn’t actually come with any specific work decided to have another look at The Devils Dictionary and some strange gaps in the words chosen. It rapidly became clear that by no means all of the definitions Bierce had written for his various columns had made it into the published book, almost certainly because at the time of compiling he had been living on the Eastern seaboard of America and a lot of the early material was 3000 miles away in California and no copies would have existed in reference libraries where he was. Over the next few years Hopkins unearthed a further 851 definitions left out of the 1911 book and in 1967 the Enlarged Dictionary was published. My copy is the Penguin Classics edition, first issued under this imprint in 1985 although Penguin printed their first edition in 1971 in their main series.
To conclude let’s have a few definitions taken at random from the book, I have literally just opened the book and picked a word for each of these so it should give a flavour of the work as a whole, some are funny, some are sharp and some are odd, I’ll let you decide which are which. In the case of long definitions I have just included the first part, some go on a lot longer than others.
Edible: adj. Good to eat and wholesome to digest, as a worm to a toad, a toad to a snake, a snake to a pig, a pig to a man, and a man to a worm.
Bald: adj. Destitute of hair from hereditary or accidental causes – never from age.
Riddle: n. Who elects our rulers?
Miss: n. A title with which we brand unmarried women to indicate that they are in the market.
Insurance: n. An ingenious modern game of chance in which the player is permitted to enjoy the comfortable conviction that he is beating the man who keeps the table.
Dice: n. Small polka-dotted cubes of ivory, constructed like a lawyer to lie on any side, but commonly on the wrong one.
Fauna: n. A general name for the various beasts infesting any locality exclusive of domestic animals, travelling menageries and Democratic politicians.
Road: n. A strip of land along which one may pass from where it is too tiresome to be to where it is futile to go.