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The Devil's Dictionary

The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce
By: (1842-1914?)

RESPECTABILITY, n. The offspring of a liaison between a bald head and a bank account. BEAUTY, n. The power by which a woman charms a lover and terrifies a husband. LITIGANT, n. A person about to give up his skin for the hope of retaining his bones.

If these caustic definitions catch your fancy, you'd enjoy The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce.

He was a columnist with the San Francisco News Letter, a weekly paper which was a business publication aimed at the corporate sector. However, it had a column entitled Town Crier which featured satirical asides and comments in a lighter vein. Bierce went on to edit the paper. His acerbic wit and pungent take on the events of the day earned him the sobriquet of “The Laughing Devil of San Francisco.”

At one point, Bierce found himself short of material for the paper and since he had just bought a copy of Webster's Dictionary, he hit upon the idea of creating a comic dictionary, with a sardonic take on word definitions. In his preface, Bierce says that he began it in a desultory way in 1881 and continued in this fashion till 1906, working through the alphabet. He included some 88 sections comprising about 20 words each as a weekly serial in his newspaper, generously laced with Bierce's brand of wit, satire and cynicism. Some of it was published under the title The Cynic's Word Book. In 1911, the entire work was finally compiled and published under the name The Devil's Dictionary.

Apart from zany definitions, the book is also peppered with trenchant bits of verse that add to the appeal. Most of these are Bierce's own creations, signed under various pseudonyms as Orm Pludge, Salder Bupp and “that learned and ingenious cleric, Father Gassalasca Jape” etc.

There are several different versions of The Devil's Dictionary in circulation. Some are abridged versions, while others have several omissions. Some recent editions are compiled from various sources, since Bierce was largely a freelance columnist and author who contributed to several newspapers simultaneously. He was a gifted writer, orator, journalist, short story writer and fierce opponent of hypocrisy. His credo was “Nothing matters!” He was a purist in style and considered a master craftsman by his peers and readers and generously supported new writers.

Bierce's death is shrouded in mystery because he disappeared without a trace while on a tour of old Civil War battlefields in America and Mexico.

The Devil's Dictionary became so popular that it gave rise to a host of imitations such as Roger's Profanisaurus, Wickedictionary, The Computer Contradictionary and many more in the same vein.

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