The Devil's Dictionary

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
The Cynic's Word Book
Cynics Word Book.jpg
The Cynic's Word Book
Author Ambrose Bierce
Country Great Britain (first British edition)
Language English
Genre Reference, satire, humor
Publisher Arthur F. Bird
Publication date
1906
Published in English
1906
Followed by The Devil's Dictionary

The Devil's Dictionary is a satirical dictionary written by American Civil War soldier, journalist, and short story writer Ambrose Bierce. Consisting of common words followed by "howlingly funny"[1] definitions, the lexicon was written over three decades as a series of installments for magazines and newspapers. Bierce’s witty definitions were imitated and plagiarized for years before he gathered them into books, first as The Cynic's Word Book in 1906 and then in a more complete version as The Devil's Dictionary in 1911.

Initial reception of the book versions was mixed. In the decades following, however, the stature of The Devil's Dictionary increased. It has been widely quoted, frequently translated, and often imitated, earning a global reputation. In the 1970s, The Devil's Dictionary was named as one of "The 100 Greatest Masterpieces of American Literature" by the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration.[2] Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Zweig said The Devil's Dictionary is "… probably the most brilliant work of satire written in America. And maybe one of the greatest in all of world literature."[3]

History[edit]

Predecessors[edit]

Ambrose Bierce was not the first writer to use amusing definitions as a format for satire. Four writers are known to have written witty definitions of words before him.

Bierce's earliest known predecessor was the Persian poet and satirist Nizam al-Din Ubaydullah Zakani (Ubayd Zakani), who wrote his satirical Ta'rifat (Definitions) in the thirteenth century.

Prior to Bierce, the most well-known writer of amusing definitions was Samuel Johnson. His A Dictionary of the English Language was published 15 April 1755. Johnson's Dictionary defined 42,733 words, almost all seriously. A small handful have witty definitions and became widely quoted, but they were infrequent exceptions to Johnson’s learned and serious explanations of word meanings.

Noah Webster earned fame for his 1806 A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language and his 1828 An American Dictionary of the English Language. Most people assume that Webster's text is unrelieved by humor, but (as Bierce himself was to discover and describe[4]), Webster made witty comments in a tiny number of definitions.

Gustave Flaubert wrote notes for the Dictionary of Received Ideas (sometimes called Dictionary of Accepted Ideas; in French, Le Dictionnaire des idées reçues) between 1850 and 1855 but never completed it. Decades after his death, researchers combed through Flaubert’s papers and published the Dictionary under his name in 1913 (two years after Bierce’s book The Devil's Dictionary), “But the alphabetful of definitions we have here is compiled from a mass of notes, duplicates and variants that were never even sorted, much less proportioned and polished by the author.”[5]

Origins and development[edit]

Bierce took decades to write his lexicon of satirical definitions. He warmed up by including definitions infrequently in satirical essays, most often in his weekly columns “The Town Crier” or “Prattle.” His earliest known definition was published in 1867.[6]

The first "The Devil's Dictionary" column by Ambrose Bierce, from The Wasp, 5 March 1881, vol. 6 no. 240, page 149.

His first try at a multiple-definition essay was titled “Webster Revised”. It included definitions of four terms and was published in early 1869.[7] Bierce also wrote definitions in his personal letters. For example, in one letter he defined “missionaries” as those “who, in their zeal to lay about them, do not scruple to seize any weapon that they can lay their hands on; they would grab a crucifix to beat a dog.”[8]

By summer of 1869 he had conceived of the idea of something more substantial: “Could any one but an American humorist ever have conceived the idea of a Comic Dictionary?” he wrote.[9]

Bierce did not make his first start at writing a satirical glossary until six years later. He called it “The Demon's Dictionary,” and it appeared in the San Francisco News Letter and California Advertiser of 11 Dec. 1875. His glossary provided 48 short witty definitions, from “A” (“The first letter in every properly constructed alphabet”) through “accoucheur.” But “The Demon's Dictionary” appeared only once, and Bierce wrote no more satirical lexicons for another six years.

Even so, Bierce’s short glossary spawned imitators. One of the most substantial was written by Harry Ellington Brook, the editor of a humor magazine called The Illustrated San Francisco Wasp. Brook's continuing column of serialized satirical definitions was called “Wasp's Improved Webster in Ten-Cent Doses.” The column started with the 7 August 1880 issue[10] and appeared weekly in 28 issues, working its way step-by-step alphabetically to define 758 words, ending with “shoddy” in the 26 February 1881 issue.

In the next issue of The Wasp Brook's column appeared no more, because The Wasp hired Bierce and he stopped it, replacing “Wasp's Improved Webster” with his own column of satirical definitions.[11] Bierce named his column “The Devil's Dictionary.” It first appeared in the March 5, 1881 issue. Bierce wrote 79 “The Devil's Dictionary” columns, working his way alphabetically to the word “lickspittle” in the 14 Aug. 1886 issue.[12]

After Bierce left The Wasp, he was hired by William Randolph Hearst to write for his newspaper The San Francisco Examiner in 1887. Bierce’s first “Prattle” column appeared in the Examiner on March 5 of that year, and the next installment of his satirical lexicon appeared in the 4 September 1887 issue on page 4, under the title “The Cynic's Dictionary”. Bierce wrote one more “The Cynic's Dictionary” column (which ran in the 29 April 1888 Examiner, page 4), and then no more appeared for sixteen years.[13]

In the meantime, Bierce’s idea of a “comic dictionary” was imitated by others, and his witty definitions were plagiarized without crediting him. One imitator even copied the name of Bierce’s column.[14]

In September 1903, Bierce wrote letters to his friend Herman George Scheffauer mentioning he was thinking about a book of his satirical definitions “regularly arranged as in a real dictionary.”[15]

Bierce restarted his “The Cynic's Dictionary” columns with new definitions beginning in June 1904.[16] Hearst's newspaper publishing company had grown nationally, so Bierce’s readership had expanded dramatically as well. Now “The Cynic's Dictionary” columns usually appeared first in Hearst's New York American, next in other Hearst papers (San Francisco Examiner, Boston American, Chicago American, Los Angeles Examiner), and then via Hearst's syndication business in other newspapers covering additional cities Hearst newspapers did not reach.

Book publication[edit]

On 4 November 1905, Bierce wrote to a friend that he was at last reshaping the witty definitions from his newspaper columns into a book, and was irritated by his imitators: “I'm compiling The Devil's Dictionary at the suggestion of Doubleday, Page & Co., who doubtless think it a lot of clowneries like the books to which it gave the cue.”[17]

The 25 November 1905 issue of The Saturday Evening Post contained “Some Definitions,” a short list of humorous definitions by Post editor Harry Arthur Thompson. Thompson's definitions were popular enough to generate short sequel lists called “Frivolous Definitions”[18] and to be reprinted in newspapers and magazines. Thompson and his definitions would have an unexpected impact on the publication of Bierce’s book.

On 19 March 1906 Bierce signed a contract with Doubleday, Page & Co. for publication of his book, but without his preferred title The Devil's Dictionary. Instead the contract used the same title as Bierce's nationally distributed newspaper columns: The Cynic's Dictionary.[19] Bierce explained to poet and playwright George Sterling: “They (the publishers) won't have The Devil's Dictionary [as a title]. Here in the East the Devil is a sacred personage (the Fourth Person of the Trinity, as an Irishman might say) and his name must not be taken in vain.”[20]

Bierce's publishers quickly discovered that they would not be able to use The Cynic's Dictionary for the title either. Harry Arthur Thompson was turning the handful of definitions he wrote for The Saturday Evening Post into a book. Thompson's book would be published first and would steal Bierce's title. Bierce wrote to Sterling: “I shall have to call it something else, for the publishers tell me there is a Cynic's Dictionary already out. I dare say the author took more than my title—the stuff has been a rich mine for a plagiarist for many a year.”[21]

The new title for Bierce's book would be The Cynic's Word Book. Bierce changed the title of his newspaper columns to “The Cynic's Word Book” to match his book.[22]

Bierce's book was filed for copyright 30 August 1906[23] and was published October 1906.[24] The Cynic's Word Book contained 521 definitions, but only for words beginning with “A” through “L.”

Doubleday, Page & Co. printed and bound 1,341 copies of The Cynic's Word Book. 147 copies were given to the author and to book reviewers for newspapers and magazines; 1,070 copies were sold; and eventually Doubleday remaindered 124 unsold copies and sold them below the publisher’s cost.[25] Doubleday was also able to sell British rights to a small publisher in London, Arthur F. Bird, who brought out a British edition in 1907.[26] Sales of The Cynic's Word Book qualified it from the publisher's point of view as modestly successful, but not strong enough to justify a companion volume of words beginning with “M” through “Z” as Bierce had hoped.

Bierce’s plan to cover the entire alphabet was brought back to life by publisher Walter Neale, who persuaded Bierce to sign an agreement with him on 1 June 1908 for Neale to publish The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce in a set of ten or more volumes.[27] They planned for Volume 7 to be Bierce’s lexicon, finally using his preferred title, The Devil's Dictionary.

To create a typescript for Neale to publish, Bierce first marked up a copy of The Cynic's Word Book with changes and a few additions. That work quickly gave him definitions of words beginning with “A” through “L”. Next he took clippings of his newspaper column definitions and revised them. That brought his dictionary up from “L” to early in the letter “R”. Finally Bierce wrote 37 pages of mostly new definitions spanning from “RECONSIDER” to the end of “Z”.[28] On 11 December 1908 Bierce wrote to George Sterling that he had completed work on The Devil's Dictionary.[29]

In 1909 publisher Walter Neale began issuing individual volumes in the 12-volume set The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce. Volume 7, The Devil's Dictionary, was published in 1911. Unlike most publishers, who sell individual volumes of a published work, Neale focused on selling complete sets of the 12-volume Works. Neale later claimed that he printed and sold 1,250 sets (250 numbered fully leatherbound sets, the first volume of each set signed by Bierce; a small number of sets half-bound in morocco leather; and the bulk as sets of clothbound hardcovers).[30] However, Neale’s surviving royalty statements to Bierce for The Collected Works tell a different story: Bierce was paid for sales of 57 fully leatherbound 12-volume sets, 8 half-morocco sets, and approximately 164 clothbound hardback sets.[31] It seems that The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, including The Devil's Dictionary, was a financial failure.

Neale did not sell the rights to print a British edition of The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce. However, in late 1913 or early 1914 the periodical The London Opinion paid Neale for the right to reprint definitions of 787 words from The Devil's Dictionary.[32]

Sample definitions[edit]

Conservative 
(n.) A statesman who is enamoured of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.[33]
Cynic 
(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.[34]
Egotist 
(n.) A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.
Faith 
(n.) Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.
Lawyer 
(n.) One skilled in circumvention of the law.[35]
Marriage 
(n.) A household consisting of a master, a mistress, and two slaves, making in all, two.
Religion 
(n.) A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.
Youth 
(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[36]

Under the entry "leonine", meaning a single line of poetry with an internal rhyming scheme, Bierce included an apocryphal couplet written by the fictitious "Bella Peeler Silcox" (i.e. Ella Wheeler Wilcox) in which an internal rhyme is achieved in both lines only by mispronouncing the rhyming words:

The electric light invades the dunnest deep of Hades.
Cries Pluto, 'twixt his snores: "O tempora! O mores!"

Noteworthy editions[edit]

  • New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., [October] 1906 (as The Cynic's Word Book). First edition. Includes 521 definitions beginning with A-L.
  • London: Arthur F. Bird, [stated publication year 1906; actual publication year 1907] (as The Cynic's Word Book). First British edition.
  • New York and Washington, D.C.: Neale Publishing, 1909-1912 [The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce: Volume VII]. First edition with the title The Devil's Dictionary. Includes 1,013 definitions.
  • New York: Albert & Charles Boni, 1925, 1926, 1935, 1944. First reprint.
  • Girard, KS: Haldeman-Julius, c. 1926. Little Blue Book No. 1056. First abridged edition.
  • New York: Citadel Press, 1946 (in The Collected Writings of Ambrose Bierce). Introduction by Clifton Fadiman. First inclusion in an anthology.
  • New York: Hill & Wang, 1957, 1961, 1962, 1968; Mattituck, NY: Amereon, 1983. Introduction by Bierce biographer Carey McWilliams (journalist).
  • Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, 1967; London: Victor Gollancz, 1967, 1968; Harmondsworth, UK or London: Penguin, 1971, 1983, 1985, 1989, 1990, 2001 (as The Enlarged Devil's Dictionary), Ernest Jerome Hopkins, ed. Preface by John Meyers Meyers. Introduction by Hopkins. To Bierce’s 1911 book, Hopkins adds 851 definitions from other sources, including 189 not by Bierce but from Harry Ellington Brook, the editor of The Wasp.[37]
  • New York: Limited Editions Club, 1972. Limited to 1,500 copies signed by artist Fritz Kredel. Introduction by Louis Kronenberger.
  • Owings Mills, MD: Stemmer House, 1978. Introduction by Lawrence R. Suhre.
  • Franklin Center, PA: Franklin Library, 1980. Series: 100 Greatest Masterpieces of American Literature. Leatherbound limited edition.
  • New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, 2002. Introduction by Bierce biographer Roy Morris, Jr.
  • Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2000, 2002 (as The Unabridged Devil's Dictionary), David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, eds. Lengthy, information-packed introduction covers The Devil's Dictionary as a work of moral instruction and provides the most detailed history of Bierce’s writing of the text, the 1906 book publication of The Cynic's Word Book, and the 1911 book publication of The Devil's Dictionary. Main body of the text adds 632 definitions from Bierce’s writings to provide 1,645 definitions. Omits 189 definitions incorrectly attributed to Bierce by Ernest Jerome Hopkins. Appendices provide an additional 35 “supplemental definitions” that Bierce wrote for the 1911 book but did not use, plus 49 “other definitions” gleaned from Bierce’s other published books and journalism. Does not include definitions Bierce wrote in letters. Includes detailed bibliography of every appearance and variation for each definition. Extensively annotated throughout.
  • Mount Horeb, WI: Eureka Productions, 2003 (as The Devil's Dictionary and More Tales of War, Satire, and the Supernatural). Series: Graphics Illustrated. Adapted and illustrated by Rick Geary.
  • London: Folio Society, 2003, 2004, 2010. Introduction by Miles Kington. Illustrations by Peter Forster.
  • London, Berlin, New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2003, 2004, 2008. Introduction by Angus Calder. Illustrations by Ralph Steadman.
  • New York: Barnes & Noble, 2007. Introduction by Craig A. Warren.
  • New York: Papercutz, 2010 ; Godalming, UK: Melia, 2010 (as The Devil's Dictionary and Other Works). Series: Classics Illustrated. Adapted and illustrated by Gahan Wilson.
  • Boone, IA: Library of America, 2011 (in Ambrose Bierce: The Devil's Dictionary, Tales, and Memoirs), S. T. Joshi, ed.

Successors[edit]

The Devil's Dictionary has spawned many successors, including:

References[edit]

  1. ^ Morris, Roy. Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company. Oxford University Press, 1995, p.183.
  2. ^ "Franklin Library 100 Greatest Masterpieces of American Literature 1976 – 1984", Leather Bound Treasure.]
  3. ^ Phillips, Matt. "Jason Zweig on Wall Street’s big lie", Quartz, Dec. 9, 2015.
  4. ^ Bierce, Ambrose. "The Town Crier," San Francisco News Letter and California Advertiser, 14 Aug. 1869, p. 11; reprinted in The Unabridged Devil's Dictionary, David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, eds.; Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2000, pp. xv-xvi.
  5. ^ Barzun, Jacques. "Introduction" to Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, New York: New Directions, 1968, p.2.
  6. ^ Bierce’s definition of “San Francisco lady” appeared in his essay “Selling Tickets” in the Californian, v. 7 n. 32 (28 Dec. 1867), p.8. It is reprinted in The Unabridged Devil's Dictionary, David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, eds.; Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2000, pp. 264-265.
  7. ^ San Francisco News Letter and California Advertiser, 30 Jan 1869, p. 3. Reprinted in The Unabridged Devil's Dictionary, David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, eds.; Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2000, Appendix B, item B3, p. 265.
  8. ^ Bierce to Blanche Partington, Aug 15, 1892. Printed in The Letters of Ambrose Bierce’, Bertha Clark Pope [and George Sterling, uncredited], eds. (San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1922), p. 5; and A Much Misunderstood Man: Selected Letters of Ambrose Bierce, S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, eds. (Columbus: Ohio State University, 2003), p. 24.
  9. ^ Bierce, Ambrose. "The Town Crier," San Francisco News Letter and California Advertiser, 14 Aug. 1869, p. 11; reprinted in The Unabridged Devil's Dictionary, David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, eds.; Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2000, pp. xv-xvi.
  10. ^ V. 6 n. 210, p. 5
  11. ^ Bierce, letter to S. O. Howes, 19 Jan. 1906: ms., Ambrose Bierce Papers, Huntington Library. See also The Unabridged Devil's Dictionary, David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, eds.; Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2000, pp. xvi-xvii, xxv, xxvii-xxviii nn. 25, 26; and S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Ambrose Bierce: An Annotated Bibliography of Primary Sources, Westport, CT and London: Greenwood Press, 1999, p. 57. For Brook's authorship of “Wasp's Improved Webster in Ten-Cent Doses” see West, Richard Samuel, The San Francisco Wasp: An Illustrated History, Easthampton, Mass: Periodyssey Press, 2004, pp. 34, 40. Remarks scattered throughout the “Improved Webster” columns also show Brook as their author.
  12. ^ The Unabridged Devil's Dictionary, David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, eds.; Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2000, pp. 383-384.
  13. ^ The Unabridged Devil's Dictionary, David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, eds.; Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2000, p. 384.
  14. ^ The anonymously-written “From a Cynic's Dictionary”, Madera Mercury, Madera, California, 30 May 1903, p. 7.
  15. ^ Letter, Bierce to Scheffauer, 12 September 1903, quoted in The Unabridged Devil's Dictionary, David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, eds.; Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2000, “Introduction", p. xx. See also Bierce to Scheffauer, 27 September 1903, A Much Misunderstood Man: Selected Letters of Ambrose Bierce, S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, eds. (Columbus: Ohio State University, 2003), p. 113.
  16. ^ The first entry in the new series of “The Cynic's Dictionary” columns appeared first in the New York American, 26 June 1904, p. 22.
  17. ^ A Much Misunderstood Man: Selected Letters of Ambrose Bierce, S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, eds. (Columbus: Ohio State University, 2003), Bierce to S. O. Howe, 4 November 1905, p.141.
  18. ^ Thompson, Harry Arthur, “Frivolous Definitions.” The Saturday Evening Post, 2, 23, and 30 December 1905; 18 January and 17 February 1906.
  19. ^ ”Memorandum of Agreement” between Ambrose Bierce, Esq. and Doubleday, Page & Co. 19 March 1906, “The Ambrose Bierce Papers,” Bancroft Library.
  20. ^ Bierce to Sterling, 6 May 1906. Printed in The Letters of Ambrose Bierce, Bertha Clark Pope [and George Sterling, uncredited], eds. (San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1922), p. 118; and A Much Misunderstood Man: Selected Letters of Ambrose Bierce, S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, eds. (Columbus: Ohio State University, 2003), p. 151.
  21. ^ Bierce to Sterling, 6 May 1906. Printed in The Letters of Ambrose Bierce, Bertha Clark Pope [and George Sterling, uncredited], eds. (San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1922), p. 118; and A Much Misunderstood Man: Selected Letters of Ambrose Bierce, S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, eds. (Columbus: Ohio State University, 2003), p. 151.
  22. ^ Bierce's last column titled “The Cynic's Dictionary” appeared in the 6 April 1906 issue of Hearst's New York American on page 16. The first of his eight columns using the title “The Cynic's Word Book” appeared in the 30 May 1906 issue of the American on page 16. For a complete chronological list of Bierce's columns of definitions, see The Unabridged Devil's Dictionary, David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, eds.; Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2000, “Bibliography,” pp. 383-385.
  23. ^ Library of Congress Copyright Office, Catalogue of Copyright Entries, New Series, v. 1 nn. 1-26, July-December 1906, p. 677.
  24. ^ The Annual American Catalog: 1906, New York: The Publisher's Weekly, 1906, p. 32.
  25. ^ Doubleday, Page & Co., cumulative royalty statement, Ambrose Bierce Papers, Bancroft Library.
  26. ^ Bird’s edition reused the American plates with the American publication year of 1906, but the British edition was actually published in June, 1907. See The English Catalogue of Books, v. 8 (January 1906 – December 1910), p. 122.
  27. ^ Neale, Walter. Life of Ambrose Bierce. New York: Walter Neale, 1929, p. 414.
  28. ^ The Unabridged Devil's Dictionary, David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, eds.; Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2000, “Introduction,” pp. xxii-xxiii.
  29. ^ Bierce to Sterling, The Letters of Ambrose Bierce, Bertha Clark Pope [and George Sterling, uncredited], eds. (San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1922), p. 152.
  30. ^ Neale, Walter. Life of Ambrose Bierce. New York: Walter Neale, 1929, pp. 417-418.
  31. ^ ”The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce” cumulative royalties, n. d., “The Ambrose Bierce Papers,” Bancroft Library.
  32. ^ “The Ambrose Bierce Papers,” Bancroft Library: “Summary of Income from Neale,” p. 4 n. 11.
  33. ^ "Conservative" entry in The Devil's Dictionary at Dict.org
  34. ^ "Cynic" entry in The Devil's Dictionary at Virginia.edu
  35. ^ "Lawyer" entry in The Devil's Dictionary at Dict.org
  36. ^ "Youth" entry in The Devil's Dictionary at Dict.org
  37. ^ Bierce, letter to S. O. Howes, 19 Jan. 1906: ms., Ambrose Bierce Papers, Huntington Library. See also The Unabridged Devil's Dictionary, David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, eds.; Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2000, pp. xvi-xvii, xxv, xxvii-xxviii nn. 25, 26; and S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Ambrose Bierce: An Annotated Bibliography of Primary Sources, Westport, CT and London: Greenwood Press, 1999, p. 57.

External links[edit]