While perusing the classic lit section at Barnes & Noble – a section that seems to diminish in size with each visit – I came across a copy of Ambrose Bierce’s beloved and oft-quoted book, The Devil’s Dictionary.
Needless to say, it promptly disappeared from the shelf. I stuffed it between the other books I was carrying and headed for the check-out line, grateful that I’d gotten to it before someone else did.
Originally published as The Cynic’s Word Book in 1906, The Devil’s Dictionary isn’t what you might assume. It’s not a book on how to cast spells, harness the occult, or correctly use Satanic incantations. Instead, it’s packed full of satirical reinterpretations of words in the English language, mocking hypocritical doublespeak – both popular and political – as well as other aspects of human (let’s face it) stupidity.
I kid you not when I say Bierce’s wit is sharp enough to shave with. And beneath his sardonic and frequently hilarious sense of humor, there are number of painful truths about human nature. He’s the sort of writer who makes you laugh, think, and say “Ouch!” – all at the same time.
It’s impossible to resist sharing some of the gems in this book, but as there are close to 250 pages of them, I’ll confine myself to sharing just a handful:
Abrupt, adj. Sudden, without ceremony, like the arrival of a cannon-shot and the departure of the soldier whose interests are most affected by it.
Egotist, n. A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.
Cat, n. A soft, indestructible automaton provided by nature to be kicked when things go wrong in the domestic circle.
Vote, n. The instrument and symbol of a freeman’s power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country.
Gallows, n. A stage for the performance of miracle plays, in which the leading actor is translated to heaven. In this country the gallows is chiefly remarkable for the number of persons who escape it.
Idleness, n. A model farm where the devil experiments with new sins and promotes the growth of staple vices.
Non-Combatant, n. A dead Quaker.
Yankee, n. In Europe, an American. In the Northern States of our Union, a New Englander. In the Southern States the word is unknown. (See Damnyank)
Bierce was raised on a farm in Indiana and enlisted in the Union army in 1861. Five years later, he settled down in San Francisco and went on to become a successful writer and journalist. He contributed to the San Francisco Examiner and other newspapers, and became known for the scorn he heaped upon the scoundrels of his day. He even earned the moniker “The Wickedest Man in San Francisco” – not by indulging in wickedness himself, but by sharply (and accurately) pointing out the follies and vices of his fellow men.
This exceptional knack for pitting abrasive humor against bloated rhetoric is nowhere more apparent than in The Devil’s Dictionary. He seldom fails to get a laugh – but there’s often more truth to his words than we’d like to admit. And that’s what good satire is all about.
When he veers into religious territory, though, Bierce’s caustic humor is a hit-and-miss affair. Some of it should make believers stop and consider; for example, he defines “Christian” as:
One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the needs of his neighbor. One who follows the teachings of Christ insofar as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.
Ouch. That hurt. How many of us pick at the speck in our brothers eye, without regard to the log that is in our own? (Matt. 7:3-5) How often do we profess the name of Christ with our lips, even though our hearts are far from Him? (Isa. 29:13)
Something to think about.
There are times, however, when Bierce’s wit crosses the line between humor and reckless irreverence. That I could’ve done without; but neither did it come as a shock. Bierce made no claim to Christianity. And if he’s leveling his guns at almost everything in sight, why should I be surprised when he starts taking pot-shots at the Sacred?
Chew the meat, spit out the bones. Thankfully, there’s more of the former than the latter.