The Devil's Dictionary

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The Devil's Dictionary
Cynics Word Book.jpg
The Cynic's Word Book
Author Ambrose Bierce
Genre Reference, satire
Publisher Neale Publishing Co.
Publication date

The Devil's Dictionary is a satirical dictionary written by American journalist and author Ambrose Bierce. Originally published in 1906 as The Cynic's Word Book, it features Bierce's witty and often ironic spin on many common English words. Retitled in 1911, it has been followed by numerous "unabridged" versions compiled after Bierce's passing rounding up definitions missed in earlier editions.



The The Devil's Dictionary's origins can be traced to Bierce's time as a columnist for the San Francisco-based News Letter, a small weekly financial magazine founded by Frederick Marriott in the late 1850s. Although a serious magazine aimed at businessmen, it contained a page of informal satirical content under the banner of The Town Crier. Hired as the Crier's editor in December 1868, Bierce wrote with such satire, irreverence, and lack of inhibition he was crowned the 'laughing devil' of San Francisco.

Bierce resigned the Town Crier and spent three years in London. Returning to San Francisco in 1875 he sent two submissions to the News Letter's editor in hopes of regaining his old position at the The Town Crier. Both were written under aliases, one entitled The Demon's Dictionary containing Bierce's definitions for 48 words. Later forgotten in his compiling of The Devil's Dictionary, they were added almost a century later to an Enlarged Devil's Dictionarypublished in 1967.

Though Bierce dated[citation needed] The Devil's Dictionary's start as 1881, its earliest roots predate his 1875 effort, tracing to August, 1869. Short of material and recently possessed of a Webster's Unabridged dictionary, he suggested writing a "Comic Dictionary" for the paper[citation needed]. Quoting from its entry for Vicegerents "Kings are sometimes called God's vicegerents," he added the italicised rejoinder, It is to be wished they would always deserve the appellation, then suggested Webster might have used his talent to comic effect.[clarification needed]

Early development[edit]

The Devil's Dictionary did not reappear in Bierce's next column ("Prattle," in the magazine The Argonaut, of which he had become an editor in March 1877). Nevertheless, he used the idea of comic definitions in his columns dated November 17, 1877, and September 14, 1878.

It was in early 1881 that Bierce first used the title, The Devil's Dictionary, while editor-in-chief of another weekly San Francisco]magazine, The Wasp. The "dictionary" proved popular, and during his time in this post (1881–86) he included 88 installments, each of 15–20 new definitions.

In 1887 Bierce became an editor in The Examiner and featured "The Cynic's Dictionary," which was to be the last of his "dictionary" columns until they reappeared in 1904, when they continued erratically before finishing in July 1906.

A number of the definitions are accompanied by satiric verses, many of which are signed with comic pseudonyms such as Salder Bupp and Orm Pludge; the most frequently appearing "contributor" is "that learned and ingenious cleric, Father Gassalasca Jape, S.J., whose lines bear his initials".


What had started as a newspaper serialization was first reproduced in book form in 1906 under the dubious title The Cynic's Word Book. Published by Doubleday, Page and Company, this contained definitions of 500 words in the first half of the alphabet (A–L). A further 500 words (M–Z) were published in 1911 in Volume 7 of The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, this time under the name of The Devil's Dictionary. This was a name much preferred by Bierce and he claimed the earlier 'more reverent' title had been forced upon him by the religious scruples of his previous employer.

In 1967, an expanded version of The Devil's Dictionary was published, following extensive research by Ernest J. Hopkins. This version included the definitions which had been left out by Bierce when his Collected Works were compiled, due to the fact that he was compiling it in Washington, D.C. but many of the entries were in San Francisco and unavailable following the earthquake of 1906. This updated version adds 851 definitions to the 1,000 which appeared in versions published in Bierce's lifetime; in particular, it includes the words preceding "Abasement" which were originally defined in the Demon's Dictionary.

Various editions are currently in print including ISBN 0-19-512627-0, by Oxford University Press, and ISBN 0-8203-2401-9. It is also available online through Project Gutenberg as well as through Wiktionary, a freely editable dictionary. The Enlarged Devil's Dictionary is in print in the Penguin Classics series, as ISBN 0-14-118592-9.

In 2000, S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz published The Unabridged Devil's Dictionary (ISBN 0-8203-2196-6), including previously uncollected, unpublished and alternative entries, restoring definitions dropped from previous editions and removing almost 200 wrongly attributed to Bierce. Dec 14, 2009 this work was brought out in paperback.


(n.) A statesman who is enamoured of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.[1]
(n.) A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be. Hence the custom among the Scythians of plucking out a cynic's eyes to improve his vision.[2]
(n.) Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.
(n.) One skilled in circumvention of the law.[3]
(n.) A household consisting of a master, a mistress, and two slaves, making in all, two.
(n.) A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.
(n.) The Period of Possibility, when Archimedes finds a fulcrum, Cassandra has a following and seven cities compete for the honor of endowing a living Homer.
Youth is the true Saturnian Reign, the Golden Age on earth again, when figs are grown on thistles, and pigs betailed with whistles and, wearing silken bristles, live ever in clover, and cows fly over, delivering milk at every door, and Justice is never heard to snore, and every assassin is made a ghost and, howling, is cast into Baltimost!Polydore Smith[4]


The Devil's Dictionary has spawned a number of successors, including:


External links[edit]