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Ambrose Bierce and the Devil’s Dictionary on Education

ambrose bierce

For those who haven’t come across Bierce, he was a biting critic of literature and culture in 19th- and early 20th-century America. Bierce’s short stories are singularly engaging and, in my opinion, few in American literature have demonstrated such a command of language. Bierce was introduced to me by a well-traveled writer who said, “On his worst day, maybe coming off a week-long bender, Bierce was sharper than you or I will ever be.” He was probably right.

Bierce occupies some real estate on the shelf to the right of my desk. I decided to pull a sample of the education-related definitions in his Devil’s Dictionary.

ACADEME, n. An ancient school where morality and philosophy were taught.

ACADEMY, n. [from ACADEME] A modern school where football is taught.

BORE, n. A person who talks when you wish him to listen.

EDUCATION, n. That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.

GRAMMAR, n. A system of pitfalls thoughtfully prepared for the feet for the self-made man, along the path by which he advances to distinction.

HISTORIAN, n. A broad-gauge gossip.

HISTORY, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.

LEARNING, n. The kind of ignorance distinguishing the studious.

LECTURER, n. One with his hand in your pocket, his tongue in your ear and his faith in your patience.

ORATORY, n. A conspiracy between speech and action to cheat the understanding. A tyranny tempered by stenography.

PHILOSOPHY, n. A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.

PLAGIARISM, n. A literary coincidence compounded of a discreditable priority and an honorable subsequence.

PLAGIARIZE, v. To take the thought or style of another writer whom one has never, never read.

I reference and sample Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary with regularity – it’s too witty to ignore. Though I use a hard copy, you can get a .txt file of the Dictionary via Project Gutenberg.

And, if you’re so inclined, peep The Ambrose Bierce Project and The Ambrose Bierce Appreciation Society.

3 Responses to “Ambrose Bierce and the Devil’s Dictionary on Education”

  1. During a literature course in graduate school, I read all of Bierce’s short fiction, The Devil’s Dictionary, Write It Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults, and some of his essays. Since then I habitually keep a few of his texts nearby for reference, and frequently let certain passages pass my lips.

    Dice, n. Small polka-dotted cubes of ivory, constructed like a lawyer to lie on any side, but commonly on the wrong one.

  2. Ah yes… “Bitter Bierce” as we called him in high school. I’ll have to check these links out.

    BTW, I like the new blog layout.

  3. Great stuff I need to check out the Devil’s Dictionary.

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