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The Devil's Dictionary

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The Devil's Dictionary is a darkly satirical "dictionary," originally written by American writer Ambrose BierceWikipedia as a newspaper column, later collected in a book published in 1911. Essentially playing devil's advocate with the way we speak (hence the name), Bierce provides the most hilariously cynical — and sometimes, as the case may be, frighteningly accurate — definitions imaginable. Imagine the result if H. L. Mencken were forced to write as briefly as possible on every conceivable topic and you're pretty close.


This is the sort of work that doesn't advocate for anything, but settles for criticizing everything. This is perhaps summed up best in the definition of "conservative":

A statesman enamored of existing evils, as opposed to a Liberal, who wants to replace them with others.

In the context of the whole work, this ends up seeming like an altogether too "safe" position, more aligned with the balance fallacy (or the comedian's "equal-opportunity offender" role) than calling out bullshit for what it is. Nonetheless readers will be pleased to know that there are those occasions on which Bierce takes unapologetic swipes at particular ideas without feigning balance. The entry on "corporation" is downright prescient:

An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.

Likewise, an uncharacteristically (yet deservedly) long entry on "freemasons," which brilliantly satirizes the nonsensical conspiracy theories regarding that organization:

An order with secret rites, grotesque ceremonies and fantastic costumes, which, originating in the reign of Charles II, among working artisans of London, has been joined successively by the dead of past centuries in unbroken retrogression until now it embraces all the generations of man on the hither side of Adam and is drumming up distinguished recruits among the pre-Creational inhabitants of Chaos and Formless Void. The order was founded at different times by Charlemagne, Julius Caesar, Cyrus, Solomon, Zoroaster, Confucius, Thothmes, and Buddha. Its emblems and symbols have been found in the Catacombs of Paris and Rome, on the stones of the Parthenon and the Chinese Great Wall, among the temples of Karnak and Palmyra and in the Egyptian Pyramids — always by a Freemason.

Many of the entries display no small degree of racism and sexism, although it's not always clear whether Bierce is taking these positions or criticizing them. The entry for "hers," for instance, reads simply "his"; whether this is supposed to be a humorously terse affirmation of what the reader is expected to believe or a sharp attack on what is all too often assumed to be the case without reason is essentially up to the reader to decide.

If there is any consistent position the book takes, it's that people are terrible, duplicitous, and most of all selfish creatures. Take the definition of "happiness," for instance:

An agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another.

On the whole, it's extremely cynical, although, if taken in small doses, it's an enormously entertaining read.

Other brilliant quotes[edit]

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 so long as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.

Marriage, n. The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two.

Vote, v. The instrument and symbol of a freeman's power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country.

Patriotism, n. Combustible rubbish ready to the torch of any one ambitious to illuminate his name.

In Dr. Johnson's famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer I beg to submit that it is the first.

External links[edit]

The book's copyright has expired, so it's easy to obtain a legal copy the full text online.