They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Devil’s Dictionary

The Devil's Dictionary

By Edgardo Civallero
Translated by Sara Plaza

Ambrose Bierce was a curious guy endowed with a dark humor, cynical and caustic, which helped him to reach a good position in North American literature. He was born in 1842 in a small village of Ohio (USA). Ambrose was the tenth out of thirteen brothers, who all were baptized names beginning with the letter 'A'. When the American Civil War broke out, Bierce joined the Union army as a topographer. He fought in a number of battles, which left him some injuries and deep impressions that marked him and his writing forever.

Ambrose got married in 1871 and had three children. Two of them would die before their parents in terrible circumstances and in 1880 his marriage was broken when he discovered some compromising letters that a secret admirer had sent to his wife, who died soon afterwards. Bierce's character was shaped by all these experiences.

His lifetime was spent mainly in San Francisco (although he also lived in London for health reasons), where he developed an intense and fruitful literary activity for The San Francisco Newsletter, The Argonaut, Overland Monthly, The Wasp and San Francisco Examiner journals.

Ambrose wrote assays and news articles –which allowed him to win instant fame–, poetry and short stories, most of them regarding war experiences. Nevertheless, his most famous work is 'The Devil's Dictionary'. The entries of this peculiar dictionary were published in different journals during a long period of time (1875-1906), and were only compiled in one only volume in 1906 under the title of 'Cynic's Word Book'. In those definitions, Bierce displayed the unique style that would immortalize him.

In October, 1913, when he was in his seventies, he set off for Mexico, a country on the brink of a revolution. Bierce joined Pancho Villa's forces as an observer and disappeared without trace between 1913 and 1914. This is the most famous literary disappearance in North America. In his last letter, addressed to one niece of his, the writer uncovers part of the mystery, showing –one more time– his profound cynicism:

"Good–bye — if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico — ah, that is euthanasia!"

The sardonic look towards human nature that marked his work, together with his vehemence and his incisive criticism, won him the nickname of "Bitter Bierce". At present, their critics remark the use of very pure English in his writings and an excellent wording through which he explained, in one only short phrase, complex groups of ideas (sometimes opposing each by means of the double meaning employed).

In 1911 the Dictionary was published under the present title 'The Devil's Dictionary', as part of Bierce's complete works. In 1967 a new extended version was compiled and a good number of entries –missing in the previous editions– were added. Finally, in 2000, it came to light a reviewed edition, which added some entries and removed over 200 meanings wrongly attributed to Bierce.

Some examples taken from 'The Devil's Dictionary' will allow you to become aware of Ambrose's sharpness, irony and use of double meaning. Pay attention, for instance, to the following harsh definitions, which, regretfully, take in real feelings of the early century (some of them might even be easily extended up to day):

ABORIGINES, n. Persons of little worth found cumbering the soil of a newly discovered country. They soon cease to cumber; they fertilize.

AFRICAN, n. A nigger that votes our way.

INFIDEL, n. In New York, one who does not believe in the Christian religion; in Constantinople, one who does.

IMMIGRANT, n. An unenlightened person who thinks one country better than another.

AIR, n. A nutritious substance supplied by a bountiful Providence for the fattening of the poor.

DISTANCE, n. The only thing that the rich are willing for the poor to call theirs, and keep.

Bierce examined the human nature in a clever new way with his unlimited inventiveness...

ACCUSE, v.t. To affirm another's guilt or unworth; most commonly as a justification of ourselves for having wronged him.

ADHERENT, n. A follower who has not yet obtained all that he expects to get.

FRIENDSHIP, n. A ship big enough to carry two in fair weather, but only one in foul.

JEALOUS, adj. Unduly concerned about the preservation of that which can be lost only if not worth keeping.

MEEKNESS, n. Uncommon patience in planning a revenge that is worthwhile.

IDIOT, n. A member of a large and powerful tribe whose influence in human affairs has always been dominant and controlling.

Now, a couple of definitions that might well have been applied to himself:

CYNIC, n. A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.

MAD, adj. Affected with a high degree of intellectual independence; not conforming to standards of thought, speech and action derived by the conformants from study of themselves; at odds with the majority; in short, unusual.

About definitions themselves and dictionaries, Bierce had a very particular opinion:

DICTIONARY, n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic.

MAGNET, n. Something acted upon by magnetism.

MAGNETISM, n. Something acting upon a magnet. The two definitions immediately foregoing are condensed from the works of one thousand eminent scientists, who have illuminated the subject with a great white light, to the inexpressible advancement of human knowledge.

He also had a very definite point of view about writers and writing:

GRAMMAR, n. A system of pitfalls thoughtfully prepared for the feet for the self–made man, along the path by which he advances to distinction.

GOOSE, n. A bird that supplies quills for writing. These, by some occult process of nature, are penetrated and suffused with various degrees of the bird's intellectual energies and emotional character, so that when inked and drawn mechanically across paper by a person called an "author," there results a very fair and accurate transcript of the fowl's thought and feeling.

SERIAL, n. A literary work, usually a story that is not true, creeping through several issues of a newspaper or magazine. Frequently appended to each installment is a "synopsis of preceding chapters" for those who have not read them, but a dire need is a synopsis of succeeding chapters for those who do not intend to read them. A synopsis of the entire work would be still better.

Human customs did not escape him either:

CAT, n. A soft, indestructible automaton provided by nature to be kicked when things go wrong in the domestic circle.

MAMMALIA, n.pl. A family of vertebrate animals whose females in a state of nature suckle their young, but when civilized and enlightened put them out to nurse, or use the bottle.

BEGGAR, n. One who has relied on the assistance of his friends.

PITIFUL, adj. The state of an enemy or opponent after an imaginary encounter with oneself.

Although mainly focused on "human weakness", he also included in his dictionary entries of very different taste. For example, politics:

AMNESTY, n. The state's magnanimity to those offenders whom it would be too expensive to punish.


BATTLE, n. A method of untying with the teeth of a political knot that would not yield to the tongue.

CANNON, n. An instrument employed in the rectification of national boundaries.

A few more examples might be:

CERBERUS, n. The watch-dog of Hades, whose duty it was to guard the entrance –– against whom or what does not clearly appear; everybody, sooner or later, had to go there, and nobody wanted to carry off the entrance.

CIRCUS, n. A place where horses, ponies and elephants are permitted to see men, women and children acting the fool.

FAITH, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.

HISTORY, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.

MYTHOLOGY, n. The body of a primitive people's beliefs concerning its origin, early history, heroes, deities and so forth, as distinguished from the true accounts which it invents later.

Allow me to say good bye to you with one more definition, and a doubt that won't be able to uncover: What had Bierce written, in his very peculiar style, had he lived at the present moment?

LEARNING, n. The kind of ignorance distinguishing the studious.

Image.