by Roger Childs

If you want to read a perfect book, there is only one way: write it. –Ambrose Bierce

One of America’s great writers

Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary is a masterpiece of wit, humour and cynicism. His satirical observations remind you of writers like Oscar Wilde and H L Mencken. 

However, Bierce was also a wonderful short-story writer, and An Occurrence at Owl Creek is one of the most brilliant pieces of short fiction ever written.

He was also a poet, producing a number of anthologies and worked as journalist for the San Francisco Examiner with a column called The Prattle.

Much of his writing related to his war experiences, as he had served in the Union Army in the Civil War. Tragically it was during the Mexican Revolutionary War that he disappeared without trace. In 1913, Bierce told reporters that he was travelling to Mexico to gain first-hand experience of it. He disappeared and was never seen again.

A dictionary like no other

The Devil’s Dictionary was published in 1911 and here Bierce demonstrated his brilliant skills of satire, precision and humour. 

Some examples:

Beauty, n. The power by which a woman charms a lover and terrifies a husband.Bride, n. A woman with a fine prospect of happiness behind her.

Childhood, n. The period of human life intermediate between the idiocy of infancy and the folly of youth — two removes from the sin of manhood and three from the remorse of age.

Diagnosis, n. A physician’s forecast of disease by the patient’s pulse and purse.

Fashion, n. A despot whom the wise ridicule and obey.

Future, n. That period of time in which our affairs prosper, our friends are true and our happiness is assured.

History, n. an account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools.

Imagination, n. A warehouse of facts, with poet and liar in joint ownership.Imposter, n. A rival aspirant for public honors.

Liar, n. A lawyer with a roving commission.

Love, n. A temporary insanity curable by marriage or by removal of the patient from the influences under which he incurred the disorder. This disease is prevailent [sic] only among civilized races living under artificial conditions; barbarous nations breathing pure air and eating simple food enjoy immunity from its ravages. It is sometimes fatal, but more frequently to the physician than to the patient.

Man, n. An animal so lost in rapturous contemplation of what he thinks he is as to overlook what he indubitably ought to be. His chief occupation is extermination of other animals and his own species, which, however, multiplies with such insistent rapidity as to infest the whole habitable earth and Canada.

Marriage, n. The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two.

Nepotism, n. Appointing your grandmother to office for the public good.

Patience, n. A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.

Peace, n. In international affairs, a period of cheating between two periods of fighting.

Philosophy, n. A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.

As the visuals of selected different covers indicate, The Devil’s Dictionary has been reprinted many times over the last 111 years. The copy I’ve is an old one and included wonderfully cynical illustrations.

For an equivalent book written for modern NZ, see The New Gobbledygook: a New Zealand Dictionary and Guidebook