Ambrose Bierce, Author, Book review, Fiction, Penguin Classic, pre-20th Century classic, Publisher, satire

‘The Enlarged Devil’s Dictionary’ by Ambrose Bierce


Humour – paperback; Penguin Classics; 336 pages; 2001. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

The Enlarged Devil’s Dictionary, written by 19th century journalist Ambrose Bierce, is not something you would normally sit down and read cover to cover, unless, of course, you have a penchant for reading dictionaries in their entirety. As much as I love using dictionaries — I couldn’t do my day job or the majority of my blog posts without access to one — I’m not so nerdy about words that I would take something like this to bed with me for a little light reading. That would feel too much like hard work, right?

However, The Enlarged Devil’s Dictionary is not your usual run-of-the-mill dictionary. It’s a full-scale satire — and despite being written more than 100 years ago it contains some very funny entries as Bierce makes light work of religion, marriage, politics and society. Here are some of my favourites:

Brandy, n. A cordial composed of one part thunder-and-lightning, one part remorse, two parts bloody murder, one part death-hell-and-the-grave, two parts clarified Satan and four parts holy Moses! Dose, a headfull all the time. Brandy is said, by Emerson, I think, to be the drink of heroes. I certainly should not advise others to tackle it. By the way, it is rather good.
Christmas, n. A day set apart and consecrated to gluttony, drunkenness, maudlin sentiment, gift-taking, public dullness and domestic behaviour. Dentist, n. A prestidigitator, who puts metal into your mouth and pulls coins out of your pocket.

See what I mean about it still being rather relevant?

But the best bit about this book is the story of how it came about: the introduction by Ernest Jerome Hopkins explains how Bierce’s work, largely written between 1881 and 1886 when he was one of the most powerful journalists working in America, came to be published in one volume.

The original idea for a satirical dictionary was born in 1869 when Bierce was working as a columnist for a small financial magazine in San Francisco called the News Letter. He normally filled ‘The Town Crier’ page with satirical comment and criticism, but during one particularly “dead” week in which topics seemed to have dried up, Bierce penned a piece about the Webster’s Unabridged dictionary and how a comic dictionary would be much more fun to read.

Fast forward a few years and Bierce began writing that dictionary and publishing various instalments in whatever newspaper he happened to be editing at the time. It wasn’t until he was editor of William Randolph Heart’s Examiner that he finally managed to compile all the entries that he could find into a book for publication.

This Penguin Classic version of the dictionary, first published in 1967, brings together a whole host of entries that were lost or forgotten (hence it is subtitled With 851 Newly Discovered Words and Definitions Added to the Previous Thousand-Word Collection).  It will delight anyone who appreciates wit, rather than humour, and revels in word play and doesn’t mind the odd bit of poetry (Bierce was also an accomplished poet). In fact, Bierce himself said it would be ideally suited to those “enlightened souls who prefer dry wines to sweet, sense to sentiment” — and I tend to agree.

While a little long-winded and trying-too-hard-to-be-clever in places, I know this book is going to be one of those titles I will dip into whenever I’m in search of some much-needed cheer. I defy anyone to read it without smirking at least once.