Book review: The Devil’s Dictionary (Ambrose Bierce)

The Devil’s Dictionary is Ambrose Bierce‘s  most well known and best loved works. Expanding upon a series of newspaper columns entitled, “The Cynic’s Word Book”, the Dictionary was published just two years before the author’s mysterious disappearance in 1911. There book follows the format common to all dictionaries, but Bierce’s razor-sharp wit and irreverent tone makes his Dictionary a refreshing alternative to your run-of-the-mill lexicon.

Ambrose Bierce

(Image courtesy Wikipedia)

Bierce defines a dictionary thus:

Dictionary, n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. This dictionary, however, is a most useful work.

In a deliciously cynical self-referency, the Dictionary for cynics defines cynicism thus:

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.

Given its relative antiquity, it is prudent to ask if the witticisms in this Dictionary have stood the test of time. Truth be told, some of the definitions do seem somewhat outmoded. Nevertheless,  the longevity of The Devil’s Dictionary is deserved, as the vast majority of entries still shine with insight that is as fresh as when Bierce first put pen to paper. As one astute publisher of the volume has observed:

The caustic aphorisms collected in “The Devil’s Dictionary” helped earn Ambrose Bierce the epithets Bitter Bierce, the Devil’s Lexicographer, and the Wickedest Man in San Francisco. The words he shaped into verbal pitchforks a century ago – with or without the devil’s help – can still draw blood today.

Indeed, it is actually to the Dictionary’s credit that it is uncontaminated with modern notions against prejudice.

Prejudice, n. A vagrant opinion without visible means of support.

Instead, Bierce speaks as he finds. For example:

Woman, n. An animal usually living in the vicinity of Man, and having a rudimentary susceptibility to domestication…


Imbecility, n. A kind of divine inspiration, or sacred fire affecting censorious critics of this dictionary.

The Dictionary continues to elicit positive opinion, The Guardian, for example, has described the Dictionary as:

A welcome antidote to those glib self-help books about positive thinking and how to improve your life, which generally have the opposite effect.

In author’s preface to his work he addresses it to, “enlightened souls who prefer dry wines to sweet, sense to sentiment, wit to humour, and clean English to slang”. If you fit this description, you will undoubtedly appreciate this Dictionary.

Amazon ranks high among the esteemed purveyors of this classic tome.

This entry was posted in Book, Cynical, Funny, Parody, Review. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Book review: The Devil’s Dictionary (Ambrose Bierce)

  1. Denise says:

    Good blogging!

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