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The Devil’s Dictionary
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“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.”
Bierce’s groundbreaking Devil’s Dictionary had a complex publication history. Started in the mid-1800s as an irregular column in Californian newspapers under various titles, he gradually refined the new-at-the-time idea of an irreverent set of glossary-like definitions. The final name, as we see it titled in this work, did not appear until an 1881 column published in the periodical The San Francisco Illustrated Wasp.
There were no publications of the complete glossary in the 1800s. Not until 1906 did a portion of Bierce’s collection get published by Doubleday, under the name The Cynic’s Word Book—the publisher not wanting to use the word “Devil” in the title, to the great disappointment of the author. The 1906 word book only went from A to L, however, and the remainder was never released under the compromised title.
In 1911 the Devil’s Dictionary as we know it was published in complete form as part of Bierce’s collected works (volume 7 of 12), including the remainder of the definitions from M to Z. It has been republished a number of times, including more recent efforts where older definitions from his columns that never made it into the original book were included. Due to the complex nature of copyright, some of those found definitions have unclear public domain status and were not included. This edition of the book includes, however, a set of definitions attributed to his one-and-only “Demon’s Dictionary” column, including Bierce’s classic definition of A: “the first letter in every properly constructed alphabet.”
Bierce enjoyed “quoting” his pseudonyms in his work. Most of the poetry, dramatic scenes and stories in this book attributed to others were self-authored and do not exist outside of this work. This includes the prolific Father Gassalasca Jape, whom he thanks in the preface—“jape” of course having the definition: “a practical joke.”
This book is a product of its time and must be approached as such. Many of the definitions hold up well today, but some might be considered less palatable by modern readers. Regardless, the book’s humorous style is a valuable snapshot of American culture from past centuries.
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