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By Jim Rhodes
I suppose it’s a sign of my mental perversion that at Christmastime I am re-reading my well-thumbed volume of Ambrose Bierce’s thoroughly irreverent The Devil’s Dictionary. When it comes to scathing humor, Bierce is unmatched. He was born in 1842 in Meigs County, Ohio, the youngest of 10 children, joined the Union Army as a Private in April 1861, and served with distinction at Shiloh, Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge. After mustering out as a Brevet Major, he migrated to San Francisco, where he established himself as a writer of short stories and newspaper columns. His story “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is one of the finest pieces of short fiction ever written in America. He was friends with Mark Twain, O’Henry, Steven Crane and Jack London. For unknown reasons, he rode off to Mexico at the age of 71 to join Pancho Villa’s ragtag revolutionary army, dying under mysterious circumstance in Chihuahua in 1913.
Bierce was a master of delightfully venomous epigrammatic barbs, which peppered his newspaper column through the years. His darts were aimed at pomposity, self-satisfaction, established religion and especially politicians. They were collected and published in The Cynic’s Word Book in 1907. The name was changed to The Devil’s Dictionary in later editions.
Here are a few of my favorites…
In politics, an imaginary rat-pit in which the statesman wrestles with his record.
That part of your friend which it is your privilege to contemplate in your adversity.
To make an ingrate.
One who is obstinately and zealously attracted to an opinion that you do not entertain.
A person who talks when you wish him to listen.
A soft indestructible automaton provided by nature to be kicked when things go wrong in the domestic circle.
A body of men who meet to repeal laws.
A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.
A physician’s forecast of disease by the patient’s pulse and purse.
An agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another.
The principal one of the great faiths of the world.
One skilled in the circumvention of the law.
A lawyer with a roving commission.
A person about to give up his skin for the hope of retaining his bones.
An eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared. When he wriggles he mistakes the agitation of his tail for the trembling of the edifice. As compared with the statesman, he suffers the disadvantage of being alive
A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles.
A dead sinner, revised and edited.
An erroneous appraisement.
Evident to one’s self and to nobody else.
A period of three hundred and sixty-five disappointments.