Essay / Misc.

The Devil’s Dictionary

Ambrose Bierce (born 1842, date of death an unsolved mystery) had a wit that could eat its way through anything. So universally sardonic was his imagination that there was nothing he couldn’t make fun of, and he proved it by making fun of the dictionary and all the words in it. For his Devil’s Dictionary project, he wrote bitter, triple-negative spoofs of everything from letters of the alphabet to political and metaphysical systems.

Just a half-dozen favorite definitions:

CARTESIAN, adj. Relating to Descartes, a famous philosopher, author of the celebrated dictum, Cogito ergo sum — whereby he was pleased to suppose he demonstrated the reality of human existence. The dictum might be improved, however, thus: Cogito cogito ergo cogito sum — “I think that I think, therefore I think that I am;” as close an approach to certainty as any philosopher has yet made.

CAT, n. A soft, indestructible automaton provided by nature to be kicked when things go wrong in the domestic circle.

CHRISTIAN, n. One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor. One who follows the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.

FUTURE, n. That period of time in which our affairs prosper, our friends are true and our happiness is assured.

PEDESTRIAN, n. The variable (and audible) part of the roadway for an automobile.

SELF-ESTEEM, n. An erroneous appraisement.

YEAR, n. A period of three hundred and sixty-five disappointments.

Oops, that was seven. Hard to stop. Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary, like the devil, takes on many forms. Here’s a fun online version of it, but if you really like this stuff, I recommend buying this edition. For a compromise, here’s a cheap and less exhaustive edition (after all, how much acid can your stomach take?)

The greatest danger posed by the Devil’s Dictionary is that by reading it you will encourage your inner cynic. The second greatest danger is that you will turn yourself into a colossal bore (BORE, n. A person who talks when you wish him to listen) at parties by quoting it (QUOTATION, n. The act of repeating erroneously the words of another) to your friends (FRIENDSHIP, n. A ship big enough to carry two in fair weather, but only one in foul).

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