Literature / The Devil's Dictionary

There are four kinds of homicide: felonious, excusable, justifiable, and praiseworthy.
— "Homicide"

A hilarious collection of broken aesops, family unfriendly aesops, and spoof definitions by American satirist Ambrose Bierce. They originally ran a few a week in newspapers, under the title The Cynic's Word Book, but were eventually compiled into a book that's now free from copyright. Bierce had nothing but contempt for the mores and customs of his fellow man, and his book is full of ungentle Deconstruction of what people secretly mean when they speak.

A perennial favorite of atheists, cynics, denizens of Encyclopedia Dramatica, and good old-fashioned depressed people, it's considered by some to be a bona fide classic of American literature, although it isn't very well known in the mainstream and never achieved the notoriety of similar works, such as the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. In a nutshell, The Devil's Dictionary is a dictionary that claims to present the "true" definitions of words, or rather the concepts said words supposedly represent, free of the superficial and hypocritical connotations they've gained throughout their years in the zeitgeist. As expected of Bitter Bierce, the vast majority of these paint even universally benevolent concepts (like "friendship") in a very grim light, often accompanied by poems or rhymes written by Bierce under a series of bizarre and cryptic aliases. Bierce had fierce hatred for mediocrity, common morality and religion, and his frequent jabs caused a great deal of controversy.

Many definitions came with quotes, real or fabricated, illustrating the folly usually accompanying the use of the word. He also frequently employed puns, some to truly awful effect. Some examples:

ACCORDION, n.
An instrument in harmony with the sentiments of an assassin.

ADMIRATION, n.
Our polite recognition of another's resemblance to ourselves.

COMPROMISE, n.
Such an adjustment of conflicting interests as gives each adversary the satisfaction of thinking he has got what he ought not to have, and is deprived of nothing except what was justly his due.

CONSERVATIVE, n.
A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.

CORSAIR, n.
A politician of the seas.

CORPORATION, n.
An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.

DEJEUNER, n.
The breakfast of an American who has been in Paris. Variously pronounced.

FOOL, n.
A person who pervades the domain of intellectual speculation and diffuses himself through the channels of moral activity. He is omnific, omniform, omnipercipient, omniscience, omnipotent. He it was who invented letters, printing, the railroad, the steamboat, the telegraph, the platitude and the circle of the sciences. He created patriotism and taught the nations war — founded theology, philosophy, law, medicine and Chicago. He established monarchical and republican government. He is from everlasting to everlasting — such as creation's dawn beheld he fooleth now. In the morning of time he sang upon primitive hills, and in the noonday of existence headed the procession of being. His grandmotherly hand was warmly tucked-in the set sun of civilization, and in the twilight he prepares Man's evening meal of milk-and-morality and turns down the covers of the universal grave. And after the rest of us shall have retired for the night of eternal oblivion he will sit up to write a history of human civilization.

FRIENDSHIP, n.
A ship big enough to carry two in good weather, but only one in foul.

HARANGUE, n.
A speech by an opponent, who is known as an harrangue-outang.

MONDAY, n.
In Christian countries, the day after the baseball game.

OCCIDENT, n.
The part of the world lying west (or east) of the Orient. It is largely inhabited by Christians, a powerful subtribe of the Hypocrites, whose principal industries are murder and cheating, which they are pleased to call "war" and "commerce." These, also, are the principal industries of the Orient.

PATRIOTISM, n.
Combustible rubbish ready to the torch of any one ambitious to illuminate his name.

In Dr. Johnson's famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer I beg to submit that it is the first.

TWICE, adv.
Once too often.

According to its author, it is intended to be used as a school textbook. A copy can be found online here. Or here, in dictd-compatible dictionary format.

Tropes include:

  • Absurdly Sharp Blade: The entry for Scimetar recounts a Japanese executioner whose blade is so sharp the condemned man keeps his head until he blows his nose. When this fails to happen, he realizes he must have cut his own head off without realizing it. He promptly pulls it off in penance.
  • And Zoidberg:
    • Man "multiplies with such insistent rapidity as to infest the whole habitable earth and Canada".
    • From the entry on Trial:
    In our day the accused is usually a human being, or a socialist, but in mediaeval times, animals, fishes, reptiles and insects were brought to trial.
  • Awful Wedded Life: But of course.
    HUSBAND, n. One who, having dined, is charged with the care of the plate.
    MARRIAGE, n. The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two.
    WEDDING, n. A ceremony at which two persons undertake to become one, one undertakes to become nothing, and nothing undertakes to become supportable.
    YOKE, n. An implement, madam, to whose Latin name, jugum, we owe one of the most illuminating words in our language — a word that defines the matrimonial situation with precision, point and poignancy. A thousand apologies for withholding it.
  • Brutal Honesty: Bierce wrote the dictionary as a Juvenalian satire on all the hypocrisies of the civilised world, and does not pull any punches.
  • Black Comedy: On show throughout. See, for example, the entry on "homicide".
  • Comedic Sociopathy
    Happiness, n. An agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another.
  • Conspiracy Theorist: Bierce satirizes some views of these with the entry on "Freemasons":
    An order with secret rites, grotesque ceremonies and fantastic costumes, which, originating in the reign of Charles II, among working artisans of London, has been joined successively by the dead of past centuries in unbroken retrogression until now it embraces all the generations of man on the hither side of Adam and is drumming up distinguished recruits among the pre-Creational inhabitants of Chaos and Formless Void. The order was founded at different times by Charlemagne, Julius Caesar, Cyrus, Solomon, Zoroaster, Confucius, Thothmes, and Buddha. Its emblems and symbols have been found in the Catacombs of Paris and Rome, on the stones of the Parthenon and the Chinese Great Wall, among the temples of Karnak and Palmyra and in the Egyptian Pyramids — always by a Freemason.
  • Corrupt Church
    Clergyman, n. A man who undertakes the management of our spiritual affairs as a method of bettering his temporal ones.
  • Darker and Edgier: Not a trope you expect to see applied to dictionaries, but there it is.
  • Everything's Better with Monkeys: From "Story":
    General H.H. Wotherspoon, president of the Army War College, has a pet rib-nosed baboon, an animal of uncommon intelligence but imperfectly beautiful. Returning to his apartment one evening, the General was surprised and pained to find Adam (for so the creature is named, the general being a Darwinian) sitting up for him and wearing his master's best uniform coat, epaulettes and all.
    "You confounded remote ancestor!" thundered the great strategist, "what do you mean by being out of bed after naps? — and with my coat on!"
    Adam rose and with a reproachful look got down on all fours in the manner of his kind and, scuffling across the room to a table, returned with a visiting-card: General Barry had called and, judging by an
empty champagne bottle and several cigar-stumps, had been hospitably entertained while waiting. The general apologized to his faithful progenitor and retired. The next day he met General Barry, who said:
"Spoon, old man, when leaving you last evening I forgot to ask you about those excellent cigars. Where did you get them?"
General Wotherspoon did not deign to reply, but walked away.
"Pardon me, please," said Barry, moving after him; "I was joking of course. Why, I knew it was not you before I had been in the room fifteen minutes."
  • Humans Are Morons
    Circus, n. A place where horses, ponies and elephants are permitted to see men, women and children acting the fool.
    Logic, n. The art of thinking and reasoning in strict accordance with the limitations and incapacities of the human misunderstanding.
  • Hurricane of Puns: Many, e.g. the above definition of "harangue".
  • Hypocrite: Many of the entries invoke this, such as the one for "Christian":
    One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor. One who follows the teachings of Christ so long as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.
  • Kick the Dog
    Cat, n. A soft, indestructible automaton provided by nature to be kicked when things go wrong in the domestic circle.
  • Literary Agent Hypothesis: Most of the poetry is quite self-evidently written by Bierce, but he gives fake names for its "writers".
  • Never Say "Die"
    Die, n. The singular of "dice". We seldom hear the word, because there is a prohibitory proverb, "Never say die". At long intervals, however, some one says: "The die is cast", which is not true, for it is cut. [...]
  • Man in a Kilt:
    Kilt, n. A costume sometimes worn by Scotchmen in America and Americans in Scotland.
  • Matzo Fever: Bierce evidently had it, considering the following definition:
    Hebrew, n. A male Jew, as distinguished from the Shebrew, an altogether superior creation.
  • Overly Long Gag: The definition of infidel clearly follows this trope.
  • Parody: Of the dictionary of all things.
  • Rhymes on a Dime: Most of his poems.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!
    Impunity, n. Wealth.
  • Shrug of God
    Hug, v. very a. To——to——What the devil does it mean, anyhow?
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Need we even say which side it falls on? Also incredible is the sheer number of Take Thats, satirical jabs, and general fuck-yous it aims at the other end.
  • Take a Third Option: Whenever confronted with two opposing worldviews (atheism and Christianity, communism and capitalism, rationalism and mysticism) Bierce typically heaped scorn on both.
  • Take That!: At Romanticism in general, but especially vicious against concepts of love and faith. For example, this very specific target:
    Incompossible, n. Unable to exist if something else exists. Two things are incompossible when the world of being has scope enough for one of them, but not enough for both — as Walt Whitman's poetry and God's mercy to man. [...]
  • White Man's Burden: Mocked with "aboriginals".
    Persons of little worth found cumbering the soil of a newly discovered country. They soon cease to cumber; they fertilize.


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