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Book Review: The Devil’s Dictionary

devils dictionary steadmanYou might ask yourself how a dictionary could be one of the funniest books of all time. Or rather, I might ask myself that if I didn’t already know the answer. The answer is Ambrose Bierce, the 19th century author was was a notorious grump, cynic, critic, and a great writer. He also disappeared without a trace after heading down to Mexico and there are really no solid leads on what happened to him, though not for want of trying. Bierce wrote The Devil’s Dictionary, which is one of the greatest books I have ever read.

It is dictionary for cynics. Crotchety old Ambrose took words like “Youth” and defined them like so:

  • Youth (noun) The Period of Possibility, when Archimedes finds a fulcrum, Cassandra has a following and seven cities compete for the honor of endowing a living Homer.

If you’re not up on your Greek mythology or epic poets or oracles, this might not be funny to you. Try another one.

  • Saint: A dead sinner revised and edited

Here’s an entry from the Dictionary’s website, which I recommend visiting.

  • FORK, n. An instrument used chiefly for the purpose of putting dead animals into the mouth. Formerly the knife was employed for this purpose, and by many worthy persons is still thought to have many advantages over the other tool, which, however, they do not altogether reject, but use to assist in charging the knife. The immunity of these persons from swift and awful death is one of the most striking proofs of God’s mercy to those that hate Him.

You may be asking yourself if this is all very, very awesome. The answer is yes. I can pick this book up anytime and find something that makes me laugh on any page. And I’m not even a cynic. It also helps that I have the version that was illustrated by Ralph Steadman, another weirdo that I can’t get enough of. He was the guy who illustrated a lot of Hunter S. Thompson’s pieces (read the Kentucky Derby one from The Great Shark Hunt).

I think this book is more of an achievement than it gets credit for. Being funny is serious business, and when it flops, it’s horrible. If I had to come up with clever definitions for hundreds of words, I don’t think I’d be up to it.


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  • Kirk January 13, 2011, 7:44 am

    I am a huge fan of the Devil’s Dictionary. If you are looking for something very similar (I suspect purposely patterned on Bierce’s Dictionary), equally funny and erudite, then you should check out the Doubter’s Companion by John Ralston Saul. Absolutely brilliant. The two sit on my desk side-by-side as a sort of companion set…

  • Ben@TIC January 16, 2011, 10:31 am

    One of my favorite reference books 🙂

    I love this definition:

    SELF-EVIDENT, adj. Evident to one’s self and to nobody else.