The Devil's Dictionary, by Ambrose Bierce

Published 1911
Review by Tim

Book Cover Two men, it seems, have said everything worth saying in English. If the language is archaic, it was said by Shakespeare. If modern, it is usually attributed to Mark Twain. "A quotation," Twain said once, "is the act of repeating erroneously the words of another." And, I might add, the mistaken attribution of such words. This is the sort of wry, dry wit that was Twain's hallmark. Too bad he never said it.

Ambrose Bierce is responsible for some of the most frequently quoted sallies of wit ever produced in English, usually ascribed to someone else. Most of these were published in a newspaper column titled "The Devil's Dictionary", appearing at odd intervals from 1881 to 1906. Some of my favorites include:

Peace, n.
In international affairs, a period of cheating between two periods of fighting.

Defame, v.t.
To lie about another. To tell the truth about another.

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

Koran, n.
A book which the Mohammedans foolishly believe to have been written by divine inspiration, but which Christians know to be a wicked imposture, contradictory to Holy Scriptures. [Reviewer's Note: to those who may take offense at a perceived criticism of the holy book of the Muslims, the definition contains irony, a literary device which you've probably never encountered, to your knowledge. To those who may take offense at a perceived allusion to Christian hypocrisy, you are correct, but take heart - the quality is not restricted to Christians].

In 1906 a large number of these definitions were collected and published in a single volume under the title The Cynic's Word Book, which the author "had not the power to reject nor the happiness to approve." The volume's success can be gauged by the number of imitations that followed its publication, a phenomenon that is not unknown today.

In 1911, a comprehensive collection was printed under its present title, with a preface by the author. The book contains mainly a large number of definitions similar to those quoted above, humorous verses, and some delightful stories. Some of the matter is dated in terms of historical context, but most of the text is quite accessible, and will impress the reader with a sense of how little people have really changed in almost a century.

The book is still in print, and is also accessible from the web. However, I feel obliged to issue this caveat: after reading the book, you may experience a maddening appreciation of wit, and an irresistible urge to speak and write in clean, literate English. The compulsion is usually transient.

The Devil's Dictionary, by Ambrose Bierce