The Devil’s Dictionary

“Ambrose Bierce,” says the Publisher’s Note to Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary (Peter pauper Press, 1958), “was an angry young man who got angrier as he grew older,” and I think that any author who can be described with a line like that deserves a chance to be read.  Not all angry old authors are worth reading, of course, but so many of the old authors worth reading are indeed angry that your chances are probably better with angry than with otherwise.

Bierce’s dictionary is exactly what it purports to be: a dictionary, only its definitions are characterized primarily by irony, cynicism, ridicule, contempt, bitterness, anger, and a good deal of wit.  It is nothing more than this, but if your sense of humour leans in this direction, which mine absolutely does, The Devil’s Dictionary should give you an hour or two of entertainment.

Let me offer a few examples:

Abstainer, n.  A weak person who yields to the temptation of denying himself a pleasure.

Cynic, n.  A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.

Discussion, n.  A method of confirming others in their errors.

Impunity, n.  Wealth.

Presidency, n.  The greased pig in the field of American politics.

Wheat, n.  A cereal from which a tolerably good whiskey can with some difficulty be made, and which is used also for bread.

I like that last one particularly.

  1. This is great. It seems more like an encyclopedic concordance though. Where can I get a copy?

  2. Curtis,

    My copy is old, but the book is still in print, so you should be able either to find it in a used bookstore or to order it through a new book store.

    I am not sure what you mean by an “encyclopedic concordance”. To which text would it be a concordance? How exactly are the definitions encyclopedic?

  3. Well, not sure why I said encylcopedic, probably because it gives a more contextual, or certain context for its words, and that’s what a concordance does, expand terminology.

  4. Curtis,

    A concordance is an alphabetical index of all the words used in a particular text. It lists each use of each word along with its immediate context. So,a concordance is always a concordance of something, of the Bible, or of Shakespeare’s works, or whatever, and it is usually a concordance to a particular edition of these works. It used to be an essential research tool but has been made largely redundant by searchable electronic text.

  5. From, number three for Concordance,

    an alphabetical index of subjects or topics.

    I believe a dictionary, being an alphabetical index of the subject and topic of words, qualifies as a Concordance.

  6. Curtis,

    I guess, in the most general sense, a dictionary could be considered an index to an entire language and therefore also a concordance of an entire language, but only at the expense of removing the distinction between a concordance and a dictionary altogether, and at the expense of using the word ‘concordance’ in opposition to all common usage. What is more, it would not clarify why you would use it in reference to The Devil’s Dictionary, which is certainly not an index to a certain language nor to any particular specialized language. It would also not explain how The Devil’s Dictionary is “more like” a concordance than a dictionary, as your first comment claims, since you have removed any useful distinction between a dictionary and a concordance anyway. So, even according to your own definition, your first post was misusing the word ‘concordance’ egregiously.

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