The Devil’s Dictionary

20180327 Devil's Dictionary

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.

Persian Poets

In 1997 I was in Iran and in the Tehran museum saw fabulous hand painted pages from the great classics of Persian literature some of which were 1000 years old, so were contemporary with the great early medieval illuminated manuscripts produced by the monks in Western Europe that I was already familiar with. However these pages were on a different level being more miniature paintings surrounded by text rather than marginal images, a complete book would be a wonder of any age but few have survived intact.

The great epic poem Shahnameh by Ferdosi (also Ferdowsi, Firdusi etc. Persian to English isn’t a precise transliteration) was one of the stars of the exhibition with several wonderful pages on display and at over 100,000 lines it is the longest poem ever written by one author. Written and revised between 997 and 1010AD the 1000 year old poem tells the tale of Persia from a mythological start and the creation of the world, through a time of legendary heroes to historical accounts up to around 750AD and the fall of the Sassanid rulers of Persia. Despite the age of the text it is still perfectly readable to modern Iranians whereas Geoffrey Chaucer (who lived roughly 400 years later) is about as far back in English that you can go and  have a reasonable chance of being able to understand the meaning. Regrettably I don’t read Persian so the text is beyond me but the illustrations made me yearn for a copy for myself. So along with a couple of rugs my souvenirs of Iran included a book in tribute to this great work and the ancient illustrations that so fascinated me on first seeing them.

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The book was printed in 1991 and describes itself as a commemoration of the millennium of composing Shahnameh by Ferdosi. It was a few years early but the 1000 years have now passed and I’m glad it was early or I may not have been able to obtain this lovely, if somewhat large (42cm x 30cm), volume. The basic premise of the book is that 22 paintings by Mahmoud Farshchian done in the old style of Persian miniature art that I so admired would be used to illustrate sections from the heroic phase of the poem, it is written mainly in Persian with some English to explain the paintings.  The introductory pages are truly beautiful

and then we get into the main work which is the 22 modern interpretations of pages from the ancient works, I love the way that the pictures reach out beyond the frame. Click on the pictures to access full screen versions.

I have chosen 5 pages from the book to illustrate it and these are:

  • In his third labour, Rostam slays the dragon
  • Sohrab launches an offensive against Persia
  • Siavosh undergoes the ordeal by fire which Keykavus has arranged
  • Rostam sets Bijan free from the well where he has been imprisoned by order of the Turanian ruler
  • View of the Hunting Ground, with Bahram Gur talking to the harpist maiden

Ferdosi is not by any means the most famous of the Persian poets, that honour probably goes to Hafez and the annual Hafez festival was on when I arrived in his birthplace of Shiraz. He lived from 1315 to 1390 and like Ferdosi his name is more of an honorific, the difference is that we don’t know the real name of Ferdosi but Hafez was Khwāja Shams-ud-Dīn Muḥammad. Being called Hafez indicates somebody who has memorised the Koran, which apparently he did at a remarkably early age and that is the name with which he has gone down in posterity. Also on my bookshelves is the programme for the event.

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and I took several photographs at his mausoleum which is where recitals and singing of his poems were taking place. He is a much loved poet in Iran which is odd when you consider that most of his poems involve wine, love or the beauty of women; hardly the subjects that are approved of in conservative Iran.

There are fortunately several good English translations including Penguin paperbacks of Hafez’s works, and now Ferdosi has also been included in Penguin Classics so let us leave this blog post with some words by Hafez from The Penguin Little Black Classic “The nightingales are drunk”

With wine beside a gently flowing brook – this is best;

Withdrawn from sorrow in some quiet nook – this is best;

Our life is like a flower’s that blooms for ten short days

Bright laughing lips, a friendly fresh-faced look – this is best.

 

Penguin Drop Caps

In 2012 Penguin Books started a series of books for sale in the USA and Canada and it made use of their extensive back catalogue along with some newer modern classics in a handsome new style hardback binding. The tagline of the set is

It all begins with a letter

and the concept was to produce 26 titles where each letter of the alphabet was represented by the surname of the author. An interesting idea especially over the choice of names for some of the more difficult letters. What made the set a cohesive whole was the decision to have all the letters on the covers designed by one person, Jessica Hische, and for her to create an evocative set of designs. Adding the input of Penguin Art Director Paul Buckley we ended up with a rainbow of classic books which call to you from the shelves and look totally different to anything else I have. Good design has been the hallmark of Penguin Books from their beginning in 1935 and it’s good to see that tradition being respected in a modern set.

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Of course a set like this appeals to the collector part of me, especially when they are not officially available in the UK as I like a challenge, but it also harks back to the very first Penguin Books I initially accumulated, then decided to collect, which was the early (first 125) Penguin Classics.  Buying a set of books forces you to purchase authors you may not have been intending to buy or even to have heard of and once the book is on the shelf it would be remiss not to at least give the book a go. The first title is a case in point; Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is not a title that has ever appealed but I have to say that much to my surprise I’m really enjoying it. I have also read Madame Bovary, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Five Children and It, and Cannery Row so far and I’m looking forward to tackling authors I don’t know at all such as Willa Cather and Sigrid Undset.

The full list is as follows:

  • Austen, Jane – Pride and Prejudice
  • Bronte, Charlotte – Jane Eyre
  • Cather, Willa – My Antonia
  • Dickens, Charles – Great Expectations
  • Eliot, George – Middlemarch
  • Flaubert, Gustave – Madame Bovary
  • Golding, William – Lord of the Flies
  • Hesse, Hermann – Siddhartha
  • Ishiguro, Kazou – An Artist of the Floating World
  • Joyce, James – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
  • Kidd, Sue Monk – The Secret life of Bees
  • Lee, Chang-rae – Native Speaker
  • Melville, Herman – Moby-Dick
  • Nesbit, E – Five Children and It
  • O’Hara, John – Butterfield 8
  • Proust, Marcel – Swann’s Way
  • Queen, Ellery – The Greek Coffin Mystery
  • Rushdie, Salman – Haroun and the Sea of Stories
  • Steinbeck, John – Cannery Row
  • Tan, Amy – The Joy Luck Club
  • Undset, Sigrid – Kristin Lavransdatter 1: The Wreath
  • Voltaire – Candide
  • Whitman, Walt – Leaves of Grass and Selected Poems and Prose
  • Xinran – Sky Burial
  • Yeats, William Butler – When You are Old
  • Zafon, Carlos Ruiz – Shadow of the Wind

A to F came out in 2012, G to P in 2013 and Q to Z in 2014 although I only started to collect these books towards the end of last year (2017) so the last 5 have only recently arrived and I didn’t buy them in alphabetical order but rather which 4 or 5 a month I could find at a sensible price.  Their official retail price varies on the copies I have between US $23 and $30 although the Canadian prices fluctuate much more widely between $24 and $40. The cheapest I found one in the UK was around £10 and had to spend up to £17 to get the last few I was missing.

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The spines are also attractive and make a bold statement on the shelf next to me as I write this, as can be seen in the picture above the page edges are also coloured to complement the cover and the rear cover has a short quote from the book that Penguin have turned into a parlour game

Mine is from Great Expectations:

Suffering has been stronger than all the other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be.

and then A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race

Not the cheeriest of quotes but I’m not going to let them put me off reading all these as they are lovely books with a clear font (Archer) as you would hope from a series that takes lettering seriously and a pleasure to pull off the shelf and sit down with.