The Devil’s Dictionary

"The Hell," mosaic by  Coppo di Marcovaldo, circa 1301. (Credit:  Wikimedia Commons)

“The Hell,” mosaic by Coppo di Marcovaldo, circa 1301. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In times of trouble, I do not consult the Bible. I visit the astonishing and still very relevant Devil’s Dictionary by the bewildering Ambrose Bierce. Its word definitions—compiled during the last half of the nineteenth century—are cleansing, illuminating, and especially joyful during times when our minds are full of signs (indeed the certainty) that the prophesied and long-awaited Apocalypse is upon us.

Observe, for example, its sober definition of ABSURDITY = A statement or belief manifestly inconsistent with one’s own opinion. Take heed, all those who labor in “new” universities and houses of learning, of the dictionary’s stern proclamation of the decadence of such institutions: ACADEMY = A modern school where football is taught.

Mosaics in the Museo Archeologico (Naples, Italy). (Credit: Sailko / Wikimedia Commons)

Mosaics in the Museo Archeologico (Naples, Italy). (Credit: Sailko / Wikimedia Commons)

On religious and spiritual grounds, the dictionary ranges over a wide landscape of words in contemporary usage. A CHRISTIAN is defined as one who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor, and one who follows the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin. An EVANGELIST is a bearer of good tidings, particularly (in a religious sense) such as assure us of our own salvation and the damnation of our neighbors.

About the heavenly spheres and inhabitants the dictionary informs us:

HEAVEN = A place where the wicked cease from troubling you with talk of their personal affairs, and the good listen with attention while you expound your own.

SAINT = A dead sinner revised and edited.

SATAN = One of the Creator’s lamentable mistakes, repented in sashcloth and axes. Being instated as an archangel, Satan made himself multifariously objectionable and was finally expelled from Heaven. Half-way in his descent he paused, bent his head in thought a moment and at last went back. “There is one favor that I should like to ask,” said he. “Name it.” “Man, I understand, is about to be created. He will need laws.” “What, wretch! you his appointed adversary, charged from the dawn of eternity with hatred of his soul — you ask for the right to make his laws?” “Pardon; what I have to ask is that he be permitted to make them himself.” It was so ordered.

"Dante gazes at Beatrice," by Gustave Doré, 1883. (Credit:  Wikimedia Commons)

“Dante gazes at Beatrice,” by Gustave Doré, 1883. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The dictionary does not disdain our terrestrial existence or our politics. It defines WAR as a by-product of the arts of peace and political REVOLUTION as an abrupt change in the form of misgovernment. In a republic, RABBLE is defined as those who exercise a supreme authority tempered by fraudulent elections.

Following are some of my own personal favorites from the pages of the dictionary:

LIGHTHOUSE = A tall building on the seashore in which the government maintains a lamp and the friend of a politician.

IDIOT = A member of a large and powerful tribe whose influence in human affairs has always been dominant and controlling. The Idiot’s activity is not confined to any special field of thought or action, but “pervades and regulates the whole.”

As a lover of opera I am amused by Bierce’s definition:

OPERA = A play representing life in another world, whose inhabitants have no speech but song, no motions but gestures and no postures but attitudes.

Finally, here is my personal favorite:

EGOTIST = A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.

Clearly our usual dictionaries are missing important nuances of our daily language. Whatever one may think of the devil, one cannot deny that he is a first-rate lexicographer.


"Satan Exulting over Eve," watercolor by William Blake, 1795. (Credit:  Wikimedia Commons)

“Satan Exulting over Eve,” watercolor by William Blake, 1795. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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