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The Devil’s Dictionary – Ambrose Bierce's Satirical Lexicon

Jorge Sette By Jorge Sette Published on January 24, 2017
This article was updated on April 4, 2017

Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (June 24, 1842 – after December 26, 1913), satirist, journalist, short story writer and American Civil War soldier, is the famous author of the satirical lexicon The Devil’s Dictionary, which came out as a book in 1906, after being published in installments in magazines and newspapers for almost three decades. In his famous dictionary, Bierce selected his favorite words as entries and gave them outlandish, politically incorrect, and hilarious definitions that expose his acerbic perspective on society and culture as a whole.

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Ambrose Bierce

Only now the complete book has been published in Brazil, in a deluxe edition (including the excerpts of poetry the author chose to illustrate some of the entries) by Editora Carambaia.

For those who are not familiar with the English editions, I have selected some entries related to books, literature, literary genres, and communication in general to give you an idea of the sort of material the book is composed of, and the kind of humor the author favors. Here are some examples to whet your appetite:

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The Nightmare (1781) oil painting by Anglo-Swiss artist Henry Fuseli.

Blank-verse, n. Unrhymed iambic pentameters – the most difficult kind of English verse to write acceptably; a kind, therefore, much affected by those who cannot acceptably write any kind.

Critic, n. A person who boasts himself hard to please because nobody tries to please him.

Diary, n. A daily record of that part of one’s life, which he can relate to himself without blushing.

Dictionary, n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. This dictionary, however, is a most useful work.

Dramatist, n. One who adapts plays from the French.

Education, n. That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.

Eulogy, n. Praise of a person who has either the advantages of wealth and the power, or the consideration to be dead.

Grammar, n. A system of pitfalls thoughtfully prepared for the feet for the self-made man, along the path by which he advances to distinction.

Humorist, n. A plague that would have softened down the hoar of austerity of Pharaoh’s heart and persuaded him to dismiss Israel with his bet wishes, cat-quick.

Imagination, n. A warehouse of facts, with poet and liar in joint ownership.

Interpreter, n. One who enables two persons of different languages to understand each other by repeating to each what it would have been to the interpreter’s advantage for the other to have said.

Language, n. The music with which we charm the serpents guarding another’s treasure.

Learning, n. The kind of ignorance distinguishing the studious.

Loquacity, n. A disorder which renders the sufferer unable to curb his tongue when you wish to talk.

Mythology, n. The body of a primitive people’s beliefs concerning its origin, early history, heroes, deities and so forth, as distinguished from the true accounts which it invents later.

Philosophy, n. A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.

Plagiarism, n. A literary coincidence compounded of a discreditable priority and an honorable subsequence.

Poetry, n. A form of expression peculiar to the Land beyond the Magazines.

Quotation, n. The act of repeating erroneously the words of another. The words erroneously repeated.

Realism, n. The art of depicting nature as it seen by toads. The charm suffusing landscape painted by a mole, or a story written by a measuring-worm.

Reporter, n. A writer who guesses his way to the truth and dispels it with a tempest of words.

Scribbler, n. A professional writer whose views are antagonistic to one’s own.

Talk, v.t. To commit an indiscretion without temptation, from an impulse without purpose.

Witticism, n. A sharp and clever remark usually quoted, and seldom noted; what the Philistine is pleased to call a “joke”.

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In the 1970s, The American Revolution Bicentennial Administration named The Devil's Dictionary one of "The 100 Greatest Masterpieces of American Literature".

Jorge Sette is Bookwitty's Regional Ambassador for South America. He represents the company, writing relevant content for the region, recruiting contributors, contacting partners and ... Show More

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