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Wit and Wisdom

Of all the dictionaries that have ever been produced- and there have been plenty- few can claim to be so entertaining as Ambrose Bierce’s version.

Bierce was author of The Devil’s Dictionary, first published in 1906 as The Cynic’s World Book. The weak title, Bierce complained, was forced upon him by the religious scruples of the newspaper which then employed him and where sections of the dictionary first appeared.

When he moved to another publisher a few years later, he was able to revert to his own preferred title.

And an apt title it is, for Bierce’s acid pen and caustic satire leave no sacred cows unscathed, nor pompous windbags undeflated.

As he himself wrote: “Humour is tolerant, tender; its ridicule caresses. Wit stabs, begs pardon- and turns the weapon in the wound. Humour is sweet wine, wit a dry; we know which is preferred by the connoisseur.”

How’s this for a tasting: Diplomacy - the patriotic art of lying for one’s country. Or one where all these years later, the word American could easily be replaced with South African: Grime- a peculiar substance found most abundantly on the hands of eminent American politicians. It is insoluble in public money.

HL Mencken described Bierce as being “discreet as a runaway locomotive”, a reputation which he more than justifies in the pages of his celebrated dictionary.

How about: Gull- to tell the sovereign people that if elected you will not steal; or Guilt- the condition of one that is known to have committed an indiscretion, as distinguished from him who has covered his tracks.

Open Bierce at any page and you will find gems of trenchant wit and wisdom. Under the letter A we get; Abdomen- the temple of the gods stomach, in whose worship, with sacrificial rights, all true men engage; and Abstainer- a weak person who yields to the temptation of denying himself a pleasure.

We move to B and discover: Bribe- that which enables a member of the legislature to live on his pay without any dishonest economies. In keeping with Bierce’s broadsides at politicians, C gives us Cabinet- the principal persons charged with mismanagement of a government.

Similar barbs follow under every letter of the alphabet until we reach Zigzag- to move forward uncertainly from side to side as one carrying the white man’s burden.

Bierce disappeared into revolutionary Mexico in 1913 at the age of 41 and was never seen again. But his definitions are as piercingly accurate now in the last decade of the century as they were when originally written in its first: Corrupt- in politics, holding an office of trust or profit; and, Corsair- a politician of the seas.

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