Bierce (1842-1914) spent most of his working life as a journalist, a breed permanently inclined to thinking the worst of humanity. Other factors that might have influenced his sardonic view of human nature was the fact that he was the tenth of thirteen children, all with names beginning with the letter "A", and the American Civil War, which he was to write about in many short stories and in the memoir What I Saw of Shiloh.
But it is for The Devil's Dictionary (1911) that Bierce is remembered today. It began in the eighteen-eighties as a weekly newspaper column, each piece containing fifteen or twenty humorous definitions of words. Some definitions were only a sentence long, while others stretched to two or three paragraphs. Bierce's strong, vigorous prose style - one attribute in a writer's work that can never dates or go out of fashion - and savagely misanthropic wit made for a winning combination. When his work was published in book form in 1911, he addressed it to "enlightened souls who prefer dry wine to sweet, sense to sentiment, wit to humour and clean English to slang".
The pleasure of reading The Devil's Dictionary is the way Bierce recasts the meanings of words not as they exist in a conventional dictionary, but as they are realised in human affairs. "Acquaintance, n. A person whom we know well enough to borrow from, but not to lend to. A degree of friendship called slight when its object is poor or obscure, and intimate when he is rich or famous." Distance is understood as "The only thing that the rich are willing for the poor to call theirs, and keep." And no one has ever bettered his definition of Present as "That part of eternity dividing the domain of disappointment from the realm of hope".
Often Bierce's definitions wittily suggest that things are merely a function of perspective. Accuse is a verb which means "To affirm another's guilt or unworth; most commonly as a justification of ourselves for having wronged him", and a Bore is "A person who talks when you wish him to listen". That last definition nicely suggests that where there is one bore, there are actually two.
Sometimes Bierce used his definitions as springboards for further inquiry, such as the charge of ahistorical writing in literature in this entry on "handkerchief":
Handkerchief, n. A small square of silk or linen, used in various ignoble offices about the face and especially serviceable at funerals to conceal the lack of tears. The handkerchief is of recent invention; our ancestors knew nothing of it and intrusted its duties to the sleeve. Shakespeare's introducing it into the play of "Othello" is an anachronism: Desdemona dried her nose with her skirt…
And elsewhere he plays upon the idea that all emotions are a result of chemical reactions in the body in his entry on "Heart":
Heart, n. An automatic, muscular blood-pump. Figuratively, this useful organ is said to be the seat of emotions and sentiments - a very pretty fancy which, however, is nothing but the survival of a once universal belief. It is now known that the sentiments and emotions reside in the stomach, being evolved from food by the chemical action of the gastric fluid. The exact process by which a beefsteak becomes a feeling - tender or not, according to the age of the animal from which it was cut…; the marvelous functional methods of converting a hard-boiled egg into religious contrition, or a cream-puff into a sigh of sensibility - these things have been patiently ascertained by M.Pasteur, and by him expounded with convincing lucidity. […]for further light consult Professor Dam's famous treatise on Love as a Product of Alimentary Maceration.
A very pretty fancy - Bierce was the scourge of those who entertained very pretty fancies. Even when you grow used to the character of his wit, he is still capable of surprising you, as in his definition of Painting as "The art of protecting flat surfaces from the weather and exposing them to the critic", which manages, like the entry on Bore, to take down two targets with one shot.
Explaining the allure of the figure of Satan in Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost, William Blake remarked that "The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet, and of the Devil's party without knowing it." Bierce was of the Devil's party too, but he knew it, and was proud of it.