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The Devil's Dictionary

Published: June 10, 2011 at 9:32 am
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In this week's Friday funny, author and journalist Eugene Byrne takes a look at the work of journalist, author and satirist Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (1842-1913), a man most famously known for his work The Devil's Dictionary

Excerpts from The Devil's Dictionary

Alliance, n.
In international politics, the union of two thieves who have their hands so deeply inserted in each other's pocket that they cannot separately plunder a third.


Bigot, n.
One who is obstinately and zealously attached to an opinion that you do not entertain.

Hers, pron.

Kilt, n.
A costume sometimes worn by Scotchmen in America and Americans in Scotland.

Lawyer, n.
One skilled in circumvention of the law.

Revolution, n.
In politics, an abrupt change in the form of misgovernment. Specifically, in American history, the substitution of the rule of an Administration for that of a Ministry, whereby the welfare and happiness of the people were advanced a full half-inch.

Year, n.
A period of three hundred and sixty-five disappointments.

The story

Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (1842-1913) was a journalist, author and satirist. His most famous work, The Devil's Dictionary, was compiled from a series of occasional newspaper columns he wrote over 25 years in the late 19th/early 20th centuries.

Born to a poor but literary family in Ohio, Bierce served with distinction on the Union side in the American Civil War. He was present at the bloody battle of Shiloh (1862), an experience he later wrote about, and sustained a head wound in 1864 which troubled him for the rest of his life. He stayed with the army for a while after the war before settling in San Francisco as a newspaperman.

He also spent a few years in England in the 1870s. As an early star of William Randolph Heart's growing newspaper empire, Bierce's humour frequently got himself and his boss into bitter controversy. After President McKinley was assassinated in 1901, Bierce was falsely accused of having incited the killing in a satirical poem; the row was said to have ended Hearst's chances of running for president.

Bierce's personal life was troubled. He outlived both of his sons - one was killed in a brawl, the other was an alcoholic - and his marriage ended in divorce. He suffered from asthma as well as being troubled by war wounds. In 1913, in one of American history's greatest mysteries, he travelled to Mexico to cover that country's revolution, and disappeared without trace.

The literary verdict on Bierce is varied. Some condemn him for vulgarity and cynicism, while others praise his economy of style and flawless English. To many ordinary Americans, though, he's a much-loved character, whose place on the bookshelves is alongside Mark Twain, and whose fictional and non-fictional writings about the Civil War are among the best. His Civil War short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge has been made into several films, stage and radio plays.

Download a PDF of the Devil's Dictonary.


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