Friday, June 24, 2022

Quote of the Day (Ambrose Bierce, Defining the People Who Define Words)

Lexicographer, n. A pestilent fellow who, under the pretense of recording some particular stage in the development of a language, does what he can to arrest its growth, stiffen its flexibility and mechanize its methods.”— American journalist and satirist Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?), The Unabridged Devil's Dictionary, edited by David E Schultz and S. T. Joshi (2002)

As soon as I saw this quote, it struck my fancy: The satirist making fun of himself. And that was before I realized that I would be using it on the 180th birthday of Ambrose Bierce today.

Bierce might be best known for the last act of his life: his disappearing act in the Mexican Revolution, an event depicted in the film adaptation of Carlos Fuentes’ novel The Old Gringo, with Gregory Peck in one of his last big-screen roles as the writer.

But, unlike many authors, his life (including the most dramatic parts, such as his service as a Union soldier in several Civil War battles) does not distract attention from his writing.

In particular, The Devil’s Dictionary stands as his great achievement in biting cynicism. It is, as the title suggests, hardly the stuff of traditional dictionaries. Its mockery does not age in the slightest after all these years.

His insults could be something to behold, as in this description of Oscar Wilde when the young writer came to lecture in San Francisco in 1882:

“That sovereign of insufferables, Oscar Wilde has ensued with his opulence of twaddle and his penury of sense. He has mounted his hind legs and blown crass vapidities through the bowel of his neck, to the capital edification of circumjacent fools and foolesses, fooling with their foolers. He has tossed off the top of his head and uttered himself in copious overflows of ghastly bosh. The ineffable dunce has nothing to say and says it—says it with a liberal embellishment of bad delivery, embroidering it with reasonless vulgarities of attitude, gesture and attire. There never was an impostor so hateful, a blockhead so stupid, a crank so variously and offensively daft. Therefore is the she fool enamored of the feel of his tongue in her ear to tickle her understanding.”

Such invective derived from Bierce's wide-ranging misanthropy, as explained by historian Kevin Starr in Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915:

“He hated democracy and he hated Walt Whitman. He hated ministers. If dogs harassed him as he pedaled his bicycle along country roads, he would dismount, draw his pistol and shoot the offending animal, sometimes before an astonished owner's eyes.”

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