Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The New Devil’s Dictionary by Rhoda Koenig. Illustrations by Peter Breese

Ambrose Bierce’s masterpiece of cynical wit, The Devil’s Dictionary, first appeared in 1911, its caustic wisdom and arch tone lambasting follies and vices all around. To mark its centennial, Rhoda Koenig offers her own brilliant versions of Bierce’s mordant vision, taking a red-hot pitchfork to individuals and institutions alike. Far more than an attack on jargon or political correctness, it takes on the vanity and hypocrisy of male and female, rich and poor, old and young, left and right, painting a hilarious portrait of society today. It deals with classic subjects but also defines new ideas and explicates new usages from “cell phone” and “Facebook” to “teamwork” and “women’s magazine.”

If you relish pointed criticism of immoral behaviour, The New Devil’s Dictionary, with slashing illustrations by Peter Breese, will leave you howling for more – with malice toward all and charity for none.

The devil owning a dictionary is a somewhat startling concept and causes me to imagine Lucifer sitting at a kitchen table, peering at a dictionary for help with a crossword puzzle. Suffice it to say that I had not heard of Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, and if it wasn’t for Rhoda Koenig’s delightful email offering a review copy of her updated version, this book would have escaped my notice, and that would have been a huge shame since The New Devil’s Dictionary is a wonderful little book, as mad and spiky as it is warm and amusing.

The reader of The New Devil’s Dictionary must first contemplate the idea that to be a cynic is a fine thing and that eyeing the world with a critical sidelong glance is to be encouraged. In this sense The New Devil’s Dictionary sits alongside books like Barbara Ehrenreich’s Smile or Die, which run counter to the relentless tide of positive thinking, and instead embrace realism, vigilance and wit.

The introductory essay of The New Devil’s Dictionary absolutely must not be skipped, since: 1) it is hilarious; 2) it considers the rather colourful life and ideas of Ambrose Bierce; 3) it discusses the importance of cynicism, and 4) it makes the case for why a new version of The Devil’s Dictionary is necessary.

In tackling the last point, Koenig leads the reader into some uncomfortable territory, such as Bierce’s opposition to women’s suffrage, a view that today seems cruel and narrow-minded rather than just cynical. There is also the other issue of how society has changed in the past century. As Koenig says of Bierce “A hundred years on, Bierce’s cold eye and diamond-tipped pen retain their ability to shock and amuse. But some of his definitions are now about as shocking as the sight of a female knee.”

In the absence of definitions for the words “book” and “fox,” I will end with a few of my favourite entries from The New Devil’s Dictionary:

birth-control pill n. Contraceptive that has ensured that every baby born since its invention has been wanted – by its mother.

bright n. Of a child, not actually retarded. Of a room, in real-estate parlance, minuscule.

cheerfulness n. Sturdy defense against sorrow and ecstasy.

intelligent design n. Theory that the nature of the world is, ipso facto, proof of the genius of its creator. Promulgated, oddly, by believers.

lady n. Term of abuse.

piety n. One of the many dreary duties the rich subcontract to the poor.

pessimist n. Optimist with a higher success rate. Unlike his cheery brother, he is pleased when things work out well and pleased when they don’t. The pessimist’s disappointment at getting the smallest slice of the pie is countered by his pleasure at having predicted that he would.

suspicion n. Scrutiny we apply to all motives but our own.

tea n. Meal that, not requiring the expense of alcohol, or the obligation to entertain others for very long, exemplifies English hospitality.

And, as a lifelong vegetarian, I must include the following:

vegetarian n. Person who wishes to feel the glow of purity without the drawbacks of the real thing.


If you enjoyed these definitions and you’re in search of a witty book that will put a spring in your step on a rainy day, I can highly recommend The New Devil’s Dictionary.*

*The easily-offended and ultra-religious should probably steer clear.

Hardcover, 192 pages, Lyons Press, ISBN-13: 978-0762772476. The stunning illustrations are by Peter Breese.

Digital editions are available.

For a fun interview with Rhoda Koenig, check out this article in the Camden New Journal.

8 comments on “The New Devil’s Dictionary by Rhoda Koenig. Illustrations by Peter Breese

  1. Hilary
    March 1, 2012

    Sold! One copy, to Bookfox Hilary – and possibly birthday present problems solved (for carefully selected people) for 2012. This sounds fan-tastic. I’ve loved the original, though haven’t looked at it for years. I suppose it might fail the Jaffa Cake test – would you eat the whole packet and still enjoy the last one? – rather like The Stuffed Owl. I think if I read the whole of the original from end to end it would rewire my brain, and not necessarily in a good way. Probably one for dipping, then, but huge pleasures to be found whenever you do.

    Thanks for a review that has brightened my day, Lisa!

  2. Moira
    March 1, 2012

    Oh dear. Sold again. I have Ambrose Bierce’s original … and was trying to resist this one, but you had me at the definition of “Tea” ….

  3. Lisa
    March 1, 2012

    Yes, I think you would both love this book. Interested to hear that you both have the Bierce original. I think I might just have to sneak that one into the Amazon shopping basket . . . (must stop buying books. It’s ridiculous given that I already have so many review copies waiting to be read. Ah well.)

  4. Chris Harding
    March 1, 2012

    Oh, I want this book! I have added it to the list of Books I Will Buy In The Unlikely Event of Ever Finding A Job and Earning Some Money To Spend On Books….

  5. Jackie
    March 2, 2012

    This looks like it might be funny, at least the parts I didn’t get offended at. lol. I do appreciate sarcasm & cynicism, so I might not be offended as much as I think.
    That’s an interesting point about the word ‘lady’.

  6. Pingback: It’s all Perception…I Think « Jerin P.

  7. Pingback: Defenceless « Flickr Comments by FrizzText

  8. Pingback: The double-headed eagle cults « power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci

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This entry was posted on March 1, 2012 by in Entries by Lisa, Non fiction: language, Non-fiction: Humour and tagged , , .



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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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