The Devil's Dictionary

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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
Published in English
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]



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 early development[edit]

The Devil's Dictionary began as a serialized column 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 a serious magazine aimed at businessmen, the News Letter contained a page of informal satirical content titled "The Town Crier". Bierce, hired as the "Crier"'s editor in December 1868, wrote satire with such irreverence and lack of inhibition he was nicknamed "the laughing devil of San Francisco".[citation needed]

Bierce resigned from "The Town Crier"[when?] 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", contained 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.[citation needed]

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". To a quote from Webster's entry for "Vicegerents", "Kings are sometimes called God's vicegerents", he added the italicized 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) Bierce included 88 installments, each comprising 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 it 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.".

Book Publication[edit]

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 book 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 title The Devil's Dictionary. Bierce preferred the latter title, and he claimed the earlier, "more reverent" title had been forced upon him by the religious scruples of his previous employer.[citation needed]

In 1967, an expanded version, titled The Enlarged Devil's Dictionary, was published following extensive research by Ernest J. Hopkins.[6] This version included the definitions which Bierce had left out when compiling his Collected Works, because he was compiling the book in Washington, D.C., while many of the entries were in San Francisco and unavailable following the earthquake of 1906. This updated, 1967 version adds 851 definitions to the 1,000 which had appeared in versions published during Bierce's lifetime; in particular, the 1967 version includes the words preceding "Abasement", which were originally defined in the Demon's Dictionary. The Enlarged Devil's Dictionary is in print in the Penguin Classics series.[7]

Various editions are currently in print, such as Hopkins' aforementioned The Enlarged Devil's Dictionary, The Devil's Dictionary (1999) published by Oxford University Press,[8] and The Unbridged Devil's Dictionary (2000) compiled by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, which includes previously uncollected, unpublished, and alternative entries, restores definitions dropped from previous editions, and removes almost 200 definitions wrongly attributed to Bierce.[9] The Devil's Dictionary is also available online through Project Gutenberg as well as through Wiktionary.


(n.) A statesman who is enamoured of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.[10]
(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.[11]
(n.) A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.
(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.[12]
(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[13]

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, 1906 (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 Salmi Morse, the editor of The Wasp.[14]
  • 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.


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


  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, Ambrose & Hopkins, Ernest Jerome (1989). The Enlarged Devil's Dictionary: With 851 newly discovered words and definitions added to the previous thousand-word collection. London: Penguin Books. 
  7. ^ The Enlarged Devil's Dictionary. Penguin Classics Series. ISBN 0-14-118592-9. 
  8. ^ Bierce, Ambrose (1999). The Devil's Dictionary. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-512627-0. 
  9. ^ Bierce, Ambrose & Joshi, S.T. & Schultz, David E. (2000). The Unabridged Devil's Dictionary (First ed.). Athens, GA: University of Georgia press. ISBN 0-8203-2196-6. 
  10. ^ "Conservative" entry in The Devil's Dictionary at
  11. ^ "Cynic" entry in The Devil's Dictionary at
  12. ^ "Lawyer" entry in The Devil's Dictionary at
  13. ^ "Youth" entry in The Devil's Dictionary at
  14. ^ 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]