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BOOK REVIEW – AMBROSE BIERCE – THE DEVIL’S DICTIONARY 1911

 

A satirical and timeless dictionary that takes a series of swipes at political and religious double meanings among many other things. The dictionary started as a minor newspaper column aside, before Bierce made it into a complete short book in its own right. Entries are frequently hilarious. 

 

 Examples, here given in paraphrasing, include - A - Appeal, another shot at the dice, Alligator being an American crocodile, and therefore better than any other kind, Ambidextrous means being able to pick pockets to the left or right of the victim,
 etc. The tone of the book is highly cynical, bitter and tongue in cheek.
 The devilment is roguish wit rather than any form of Satanism. He
 notes sardonically that the ancient Greek academies taught morals and
 philosophy, while modern university academies mainly teach football.

Sometimes Bierce can be scurrilous towards religion and God, though, as
in his definition of Deluge where he sees the Biblical flood as an early
failed experiment in baptism where the sinners were washed away with
their sins by accident.


 Some definitions are quick one-line jokes, while others receive short
 poems and witty, sometimes genuine quotations in their support. Under
 J we learn that Jesters lost their status as royal fools when people
 realized that their governing kings and politicians were foolish
 enough themselves without needing to hire a jester.

 My favourite definition is that of the Tsetse Fly as a cure for
 insomnia, in that it induces sleeping sickness or death, though Bierce
 sees this as a textbook definition of American novelists too.

 Some of his definitions carry lovely anecdotes. On serials, newspaper
 stories told over several issues, Bierce relates the sad tale of James
 F Bowman, who, with an un-named co-writer, contrived to keep a story
 going in perpetuity, as a lifetime income maker, only to fall out with his friend who killed off all the characters on him in a shipwreck final instalment. A tomb is seen as the final resting place for the dead but only until
 archaeologists decide to dig us up and put us in museums instead.

 The letter X gets only one entry, dismissing it as a useless letter
 used best in abridgements, such as reducing Christmas to Xmas, etc.

 

 

He attacks Masonic bodies with lists of made up secret societies, and the
 collection of religious reliquaries are scathingly lampooned with
 reference to feathers from the cockerel that crowed to Peter on the
 day of Christ's crucifixion. 

 The book is as funny and thoughtful now as when it was written.

 

Full text of the book begins at http://www.thedevilsdictionary.com/?A

Arthur Chappell

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