Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Diabolical Defined

I had a stroke of good fortune yesterday. I went to Fnac in Lisbon in the hopes of perhaps picking up a bargain, and lo one presented itself in the form of Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary. I concluded that it was a bargain because the price in pounds (£12.95) was much higher than the price in euros (€8.91).

The book is one that I've known about for several years. Since my teenage afternoons watching Countdown, in fact. Sometimes the actor and director Philip Franks (best-known, to me at least, as Charley from the Darling Buds of May) would appear in the Richard Stilgoe dictionary corner chair and read Bierce's words for our edification. As a young cynic, I remember being quite struck by the dry wit of the entries, such as this for dentist:

A prestidigitator who, putting metal into your mouth, pulls coins out of your pocket.
More recently, I have seen the Devil's Dictionary referred to in numerous English coursebooks - presumably to encourage the humourists amongst the teenagers of Slovakia, Portugal and the rest of the world - although few include its definition of learning (with which I cannot disagree):
The kind of ignorance distinguishing the studious.
Reading the book now, it's very interesting to see that although it's over a hundred years old, many of the definitions have lost none of their edge:
VOTE, n.
The instrument and symbol of a freeman's power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country.

CHRISTIAN, n.
One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor. One who follows the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.

KORAN, n.
A book which the Mohammedans foolishly believe to have been written by divine inspiration, but which Christians know to be a wicked imposture, contradictory to the Holy Scriptures.

PIANO, n.
A parlor utensil for subduing the impenitent visitor. It is operated by depressing the keys of the machine and the spirits of the audience.

RATTLESNAKE, n.
Our prostrate brother, Homo ventrambulans.

As with everything these days, the Devil's Dictionary is available online. If you're interested, click here.


2 comments:

Liz said...

Brilliant definitions! Is it really over 100 years old? I've never heard of it but will look out for it. Maybe search on ebay - because books are much nicer than the internet really.

Liz said...

I have just bidded/bud/bade (?) on ebay for a copy.