October 11, 2004

Devilish Definitions

I recall thinking last year while writing a research paper (I am not as naive now) that nothing could be as unbiased as a dictionary. According to my logic then, a definition is a definition and how you define that object is relatively the same from person to person. However, after lots of researching and hitting rather biased sites with definitions favoring their supported view, I quickly amended that conclusion. "The Devil's Dictionary" by Ambrose Bierce reminded me of the biases that can influence anything, even those works as supposedly unbiased as a dictionary.

What is this dictionary of the devil?
Background Information on "The Devil's Dictionary"
  • Began as a half-page column in the San Franciscio Wasp in 1881, weekly installments
  • Published the dictionary as The Cynic's Word Book in 1906, although the definitions only ran through half the alphabet, A-L.
  • In 1911 Bierce added the second half, M-Z, in Volume 7 of his Collected Works, this time completing the alphabet.

When I read "The Devil's Dictionary," I didn't read any background, going against my usual habit. Instead, I just read and derived my impressions from the text alone.

Impressions of the text
  • Satirical: The entire text is like something out of Family Guy, pointing out the shortcomings of society. Because I did not do research beforehand, I read over some entries two or three times, finally realizing that this is satire. The text slows one down, suprising the reader with bald statements, rather than euphemisms that dictionaries usually employ. (example: DD: "BORE, n. A person who talks when you wish him to listen." WordNet via dictionary.com: bore, n 1: a person who evokes boredom [syn: dullard])
  • Formal style: Throughout the text, a constant formal style is maintained to look dictionary-like. Lexicographer language is being mimicked.
  • Insertions of other writers to enhance the "credibility": While I did not know all of the quoted sources, the Cromwell quote struck me as odd. Cromwell was born before the American Revolution, so I thought, how could he have used the exact same phrasing as Jefferson? Or did Jefferson take from Cromwell? When I did a Google search for this quote, only Bierce came up, and, I concluded that, in his same satirical manner, he was using bogus quotes to lend credibility to his work. All in good fun, of course. However, I am not quite sure...what is your take on the cited quotations of Bierce?

As I read, I scribbled in the margins. In the process, I began grouping the definitions into


  • Politics: Bierce pokes fun at the politicians and government. Example: AGITATOR, n. A statesman who shakes the fruit trees of his neighbors--to dislodge the worms
  • Opposite sex relationships (usually in the "blissful" state of marriage): While I did notice Bierce criticizing men, I got the impression that women faced the majority of his abuse. Example: FEMALE, n. One of the opposing, or unfair, sex To most likely conteract this type of assumption, Bierce places two "opposite sex" definitions together in favor of women: BRIDE, n. a woman with a fine prospect of happiness behind her. BRUTE, n. See HUSBAND.
  • Self: Bierce repeatedly notes the selfishness of human beings. Example:
    I is the first letter of the alphabet, the first word of the language, the first thought of the mind, the first object of affection. in grammar it is a pronoun of the first person and singular number. Its plural is said to be WE, but how there can be more than one myself is doubtless clearer the grammarians than it is to the author of this incomparable dictionary.
Proposed Purposes of the Dictionary (So What?):
  • To outrage his contemporaries, receiving the name "Fierce Bierce"
  • To inspire societal change. I found definite similarities between "The Devil's Dictionary," and Jonathan Swift's Irish cannibalistic classic, "A Modest Proposal". Both works, through extremist language and the satirical technique of hyperbole, influence the reader's perception of the subject and the narrator's perspective toward that subject; for example, when Bierce defines a Pigmy, he also describes a Caucasian with is a "Hogmie." Though this description the reader understands that Bierce thinks that Caucasians are piggish, and that one should also think this way because it is in such an "authoritative document," flagrantly described as a "useful work" against the "malevolent literary device[s]" of other dictionaries.

That is my take on Bierce's "The Devil's Dictionary." Feel free to add your responses to this blog; if you do blog on this subject, I would really appreciate it if you would leave a link here for all to read. Thanks :-D

Posted by Amanda Cochran at October 11, 2004 1:48 PM

I have to add that family guy is much funnier. This dictionary is merely cynical, dry humor, while family guy actually makes us (or me anyway) laugh.

Posted by: Paul Crossman at October 11, 2004 2:42 PM

I agree Paul; I just wanted something people could identify with to make the comparison more mainstream, rather than just English majors talking about English major works.

Posted by: Amanda at October 11, 2004 5:26 PM


You did a great job in your presentation! It is a tough debate to see whether Bierce poked fun at women or he just wrote it due to the certain time period; however I would have to agree with you that there is a connected with women and how he thinks negatively of them. You did thorough research and found that certain words in the dictionary were negatively described, if it dealt with women.


Posted by: NabilaUddin at October 11, 2004 7:08 PM

Thank you, Nabila. I am glad such a great debate got started. I hope someone will tackle that debate in their paper; I may.

Posted by: Amanda at October 11, 2004 8:07 PM
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