The Devil's Dictionary
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The Cynic's Word Book
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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 death, which include definitions absent from earlier editions.
Origins and early development
The Devil's Dictionary began during Bierce's time as a columnist for the San Francisco News Letter, a small weekly financial magazine founded by Frederick Marriott in the late 1850s. Although it was a serious magazine aimed at businessmen, it contained a page of informal satirical content titled "The Town Crier". Hired as the "Crier"'s editor in December 1868, Bierce wrote satire with such irreverence and lack of inhibition he was nicknamed "the laughing devil of San Francisco".
Bierce resigned from "The Town Crier" and spent three years in London. Returning to San Francisco in 1875, he made two submissions to the News Letter in hopes of regaining his old position. 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 Dictionary published in 1967.
Though Bierce's preface to The Devil's Dictionary dates the earliest work to 1881, its origins can be traced to August 1869. Short of material and recently possessed of a Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, he suggested writing a "comic dictionary" for the "Town Crier". Quoting from Webster's 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.
Comic definitions were not a regular feature of Bierce's next column ("Prattle", in the magazine The Argonaut, of which he became an editor in March 1877). Nevertheless, he included 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 consisting of 15–20 new definitions.
In 1887 Bierce became an editor of The San Francisco Examiner, and introduced "The Cynic's Dictionary". This was to be the last of his "dictionary" columns until 1904, and continued irregularly until July 1906.
A number of the definitions are accompanied by satiric verses, many of which are signed with comic pseudonyms such as "Salder Bupp", "Orm Pludge", and "Father Gassalasca Jape, S.J.".
What had started as a newspaper serialization was first reproduced in book form in 1906 under the 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 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. December 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.
- (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.
- (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.
- (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
The Devil's Dictionary has spawned a number of successors, including:
- Evan Esar, Esar's Comic Dictionary, Harvest House, 1943.
- Leonard Rossiter, Devil's Bedside Book, Hamlyn, 1980, ISBN 0-600-20105-8.
- Stan Kelly-Bootle, The Computer Contradictionary, McGraw-Hill, 1981. ISBN 0-07-034022-6.
- Rick Bayan, The Cynic's Dictionary, Hearst Books, 1994, ISBN 0-7858-1713-1.
- Chamber's Gigglossary, Chambers, 2008, ISBN 0-550-10414-3.
- Roger Mellie, Roger's Profanisaurus, Dennis Publishing, ISBN 978-1-907232-90-9, 2010.
- Derek Abbott, Wickedictionary', CreateSpace, 2011, ISBN 1-4636-6826-0.
- CrimethInc., Contradictionary, CrimethInc. Ex-Workers Collective, 2013.
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- The Devil's Dictionary at Project Gutenberg
- The Devil's Dictionary at Dict.org (query form)
- The original Devil's Dictionary
- The Devil's Dictionary public domain audiobook at LibriVox