'The Devil's Dictionary' by Ambrose Bierce (1911)

The Devil's Dictionary - Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Bierce, The Enlarged Devil's Dictionary (London: Penguin Classics, 2001), 324pp


Probably one of the most quotable books ever written, The Devil's Dictionary is a gold mine of wit. In essence, it provides amusingly cynical and wry definitions of words. Admittedly, it doesn't always pull it off. Some of the definitions are dated (it was written over a number of years, but first published in 1911), and some of the poems I found uninteresting. Furthermore, some of the words are so obscure that one would need a real dictionary in order to understand what Ambrose Bierce is satirising.

However, most of the definitions are genius - and timeless. In our age of recession and bailouts, who, for example, could not smile ruefully when informed of the definition of 'deposit' ("A charitable contribution to the support of a bank."). Politics, it seems, has changed little since Bierce's time, being defined as "A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage." Similarly, a Conservative is defined as "A statesman who is enamoured of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others." Bierce particularly targets the eternal hypocrisy and cynicism of human affairs and society, with such gems as 'corporation' ("An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility."), 'impartial' ("Unable to perceive any promise of personal advantage from espousing either side of a controversy or adopting either of two conflicting opinions.") and 'inhumanity' ("One of the signal and characteristic qualities of humanity."). I could go on but, if I were indulged, this review would be a mere reproduction of the entirety of Bierce's masterwork. Therefore, I will simply suggest it should be recommended reading for anyone, and leave with some of the definitions that I found particularly ingenious:

Alone: "In bad company."
Art: "This word has no definition."
Astrology: "The science of making the dupe see stars."
Aversion: "The feeling that one has for the plate after he has eaten its contents."
Congratulation: "The civility of envy."
Fanatic: "One who overestimates the importance of convictions."
Felon: "A person of greater enterprise than discretion, who in embracing an opportunity has formed an unfortunate attachment."
Forbidden: "Invested with a new and irresistible charm."
Habit: "A shackle for the free."
Husband: "One who, having dined, is charged with the care of the plate."
Love: "A temporary insanity curable by marriage."
Misfortune: "The kind of fortune that never misses."
Once: "Enough."
Optimist: "A proponent of the doctrine that black is white."
Religion: "A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable."

So quotable is The Devil's Dictionary that I must restrain myself from providing even more. In choosing these few above, I whittled down from a shortlist of sixty-three!