Today is the birthday of Ambrose Bierce, American journalist and short-story writer. He was born in Ohio in 1842, and after serving in the Civil War, he traveled west, where he worked as a journalist in San Francisco. His best-known work of fiction is a short story called An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, a war story about the last thoughts of man before his execution.
Bierce’s best-known work though is his Devil’s Dictionary, a satirical work featuring definitions that display Bierce’s sardonic, piercing wit. Bierce began publishing his definitions as a part of his newspaper column in 1875 and continued until 1906. A complete collection of words and definitions was first published in 1911.
Here are some samples of the definitions:
Bigot: n. One who is obstinately and zealously attached to an opinion that you do not entertain.
Cynic: n. A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be. Hence the custom among the Scythians of plucking out a cynic’s eyes to improve his vision.
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 (1).
Year: n. A period of three hundred and sixty-five disappointments.
The Devil Made Me Define It
Given the definitions below from Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary, see if you can come up with the appropriate word.
- n. An invention of the devil which abrogates some of the advantages of making a disagreeable person keep his distance.
- Adj. Able to pick with equal skill a right-hand pocket or a left.
- n. The salt with which the American humorist spoils his intellectual cookery by leaving it out.
- n. A temporary insanity curable by marriage . . . .
- n. One to whom the interests of a part seem superior to those of the whole. The dupe of statesmen and the tool of conquerors.
- n. A place where the wicked cease from troubling you with talk of their personal affairs, and the good listen with attention while you expound your own.
- n. A rich thief.
- n. In international affairs, a period of cheating between two periods of fighting.
- n. A prestidigitator who, putting metal into your mouth, pulls coins out of your pocket.
- n. A despot whom the wise ridicule and obey (1).
Today’s Challenge: The Glass is Half Full and Half Empty
What are some examples of nouns that you would find in a book called ‘The ABCs of Life’? Select five nouns that represent universal aspects of human experience, such as school, walking, breakfast, parents, and job. Next, generate two contrasting creative definitions for each of your words. For the first, follow Bierce’s example from the Devil’s Dictionary and write a definition that reflects a cynical, pessimistic mindset. For the second definition, put yourself in a positive, optimistic frame of mind.
–Half Empty Definition: A tedious way to spend one third of each day in exchange for a few greenbacks.
–Half Full Definition: A daily opportunity to transform your passion into a livelihood.
(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)
Quotation of the Day: There is nothing either good nor bad, but thinking makes it so. -William Shakespeare
Answers: 1. telephone 2. ambidextrous 3. wit 4. love 5. patriot 6. heaven 7. kleptomaniac 8. peace 9. dentist 10. fashion
1 – Bierce, Ambrose. The Devil’s Dictionary. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1993.