The devil was in the definitions

The Age

Saturday February 6, 2010

Jane Sullivan

Ambrose Bierce's dictionary was a work of wicked satire, writes Jane Sullivan. 'MAN, n. An animal so lost in rapturous contemplation of what he thinks he is as to overlook what he indubitably ought to be. His chief occupation is extermination of other animals and his own species, which, however, multiplies with such insistent rapidity as to infest the whole habitable earth and Canada."That's how Ambrose Bierce, dubbed the Wickedest Man in San Francisco, defines his fellow creatures in his splendidly evil book The Devil's Dictionary. There are days when I agree with him about Man, though he's being a bit hard on Canada.I've seen The Devil's Dictionary quoted many times and I've always wanted a copy. So when I saw one the other day in a bargain bin, I snapped it up. It's now sitting proudly on a shelf alongside eight other dictionaries, including The New Oxford Dictionary of English, The Australian Oxford Dictionary and the two-volume Shorter Oxford Dictionary.Of course I don't need so many dictionaries, but I've always loved them, and I notice that even today, when you can look up any word on the internet, there are plenty of them in the bookshops, including specialist dictionaries for Scrabble and cryptic crosswords. And then there are the fun examples, such as The Devil's Dictionary.Who was Ambrose Bierce? A journalist, though he had scant respect for his profession ("LICKSPITTLE, n. A useful functionary, not infrequently found editing a newspaper."). His dictionary began as a few entries in a San Francisco weekly paper in 1881, continued until 1906, was first published in book form that year (then called The Cynic's Word Book) and came out in revised, expanded editions in 1967 and 2000.Bierce's definitions include fake poetry that's now often dated and tedious. But on the whole, considering they were first written more than a century ago, it's remarkable how contemporary the entries are. You have to have a taste for dark, bitter chocolate to enjoy them. Politics, religion, art, women you name it, he skewers it. Samuel Johnson once called a lexicographer a harmless drudge, but there's nothing harmless about Bierce. We Australians pride ourselves on our daring, anything-goes satire: Bierce makes Barry Humphries or the Chaser boys look like cherubs.Indeed, if he was writing today he would probably be censored. He used to use his column to congratulate successful suicides, or to attack failed suicides. And what would we make nowadays of this easily misinterpreted definition: "ABORIGINES, n. Persons of little worth found cumbering the soil of a newly discovered country. They soon cease to cumber; they fertilise."The great American humorist H. L. Mencken, who knew Bierce and his work, paid tribute to him in a way that made the man sound truly demonic. "Man to him was the most stupid and ignoble of animals. But at the same time the most amusing. Out of the spectacle of life about him he got an unflagging and gargantuan joy."Mencken believed Bierce, who served in the Civil War, was the first person to write about war realistically in his short stories. He wrote not with sentimental horror but cynical delight. I'd love to see him write about Iraq or Afghanistan.But we shouldn't take his definitions too seriously. Not when they include "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."

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