By Ambrose Bierce
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.
I have a collection of books with ridiculous titles (Microwave Cooking for One being the saddest) and had to add this when I found it at a garage sale. This edition is from 1958, but he original was published in 1911. It’s obvious that an editor needs a dictionary or seven, but I didn’t know I needed Lucifer’s version.
The Devil’s Dictionary grew ever more fascinating once I got past the title. Ambrose Bierce was a writer, journalist and literary critic who set off for Mexico in 1931, aged 71, and was never seen again. Rumour has it he joined up with rebel troops in the Mexican Civil War. He influenced Ernest Hemingway and worked with Randolph Hearst. Kurt Vonnegut called his short story, ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge‘, ‘the greatest American short story’.
The satire is biting and clever. Not laugh-out-loud funny, but the kind of humour that makes you snort inwardly at its brilliance and then wish you’d thought of that. We need a Devil’s Dictionary for these times. Or anything, in fact, to make us laugh. It seems that literature is overwhelmingly about trauma and misery at the moment. Bring on a good satirical novel or memoir!
If you know of one, please pass it on in the comments section.