Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Devil's Dictionary: Extending the Discussion

Analyze how Ambrose Bierce uses rhetorical strategies--particularly elements of satire--to convey his worldview in The Devil's Dictionary.

In response to the prompt you wrote some bold, insightful assertions (also called claims and thesis statements). Then, you dug up supporting evidence to support your assertion. Then, you presented your assertions and supported them with evidence in a class discussion. You built on each other's ideas by expanding and refining each other's assertions and by presenting new evidence and new explanations of the evidence. Well done.

Now, in the comment box below present any of the analytical insights and support that you did not have an opportunity to share during class. You can present your own work. You can respond to what other people said in class or to what other people have written on the blog. Show that you have thought deeply about Bierce's satirical argument and the way he conveys that argument.

I'm enjoying your insights about the text as a whole and your explanations of particular passages. Keep digging and keep thinking.


  1. My rough line was “In Devil’s Dictionary, Bierce expresses a cynical world view using rhetorical strategies including extreme definition inversions, bold effective phrases, and formal register. “

    Some additions to ideas already discussed:

    - Very blunt, pessimistic assertions, while still somehow incorporating true meaning: “365 disappointments”. This contributes to his overall negative attitude. Readers keep reading due to his intellectual abilities and relevant manner; he’s staying with the true definition technically speaking, yet he’s added either downright cynical attitude (“365 disappointments”) or clever, more innocent satirical delivery (see “Tsetse fly” definition, which pokes fun at American novelists without any deep agenda like others have).
    - Short phrases like his definition of “truce” - “friendship” - are attention-getting, because when one sees such a short definition, they know Bierce has got an agenda or at least a bold point to make, and they’re ready to contemplate it. Bierce is effective with this technique, which draws readers in, whether his ideas or absurd or sensible.
    - Use of inversions like with “defame” - “to lie about, to tell the truth about” - are also attention getting and easily initiate contemplation - an author’s hope.
    - Formal register like in his definition of “Tsetse fly” may appeal to “smarter” readers

  2. A lot of people are relating the definitions to animals and how they have to do things in order to survive. There's a difference though, I think, in that they do what they have to, not what they want to. Human beings are the only group who is able to be selfish, able to be rude on purpose and try to hurt others. We do everything with a selfish motive to reach what we want, not what we need. Animals never do what they want because they do not feel want. They need, so they do what they need and that's it. They can exist happily or contently without having to have extra or surplus "things" or "objects" that they may want. Because that just doesn't happen in the animal kingdom. Maybe the physical traits can apply, but absolutely none of the actual meaning behind it will EVER be the same, because they are so much more real than the fake persona of the human being.
    I personally believe that this dictionary was solely made to make fun of, point out, make note of, etc. how humans interact. How could we be so selfish and loathing and simply pity ourselves constantly? Everything nice we do for someone else is for us. Politicians are a favorite of his and my own to make fun of, because they are allegedly in office to make our lives better yet as we speak we are RAISING our debt ceiling?! How much more money can we borrow? We are selfish and entitled. But we abuse and take for granted everything we are, can be, and have been.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. My statement: Bierce uses rhetorical strategies such as inversion, sarcasm, and formal diction to convey his cynical perspective against the world he sees as corruptive and unequal.

    One of the things that i wanted to mention in class is not so much of his rhetorical strategies but his overall point. I think within each definition he is criticizing a certain aspect of human life but when you string all of his definitions together his main worldview becomes cleaer and redefined. One of the things he hints at is inequality. For a man living during that time period, to put out so many ideas agianst what his society is conformed to is bold. In definitions like hers, white, dog, and man he tries to show people how out of proportion inequality is but also how foolish it is. And as he says, fools run our society so it's no wonder people listen to these perspectives about equality and rights. I think Bierce was truly a progressive for his time, trying to get across his ideas that other people essentially didn't want to hear. Bierce points out all the flaws in our society. We're corruptive ( definition of lawyer, dentist), we are unequal ( definition of white, hers), we are selfish and we are ignorant.

  5. Bierce goes to great extents to point out how humans separate themselves by race, sex, or wealth. His definitions of “low bred” and “distance” targets how the wealthy see themselves differently, and try to remove themselves from the poor. The definition for “un-american” is a good example of Bierce pointing out how humans separate according to race. By suggesting it is heathenish to not be American, Bierce uses inversion to point out the idea that one race is better than others s ridiculous. Bierce’s definition of “woman” shows how women can be looked down upon in society. He refers to women as animals and mentions how they are domesticated, which expresses how some may see themselves above women. Bierce ridicules those who may have similar points of view and takes his definitions at face value. He suggests that even though humans tend to create separations, in reality, everyone is equal, and Bierce promotes that we should begin to act this way. The separations that humans make between each other set up humans to become self-centered, and care about nothing else besides their own well-being. Bierce’s definition of “man” shows his view of how humans overlook how they can improve upon themselves because they are caught up in thinking that they are great, and do not need to improve. The definition also mentions how humans tend to destroy wildlife and other humans everywhere around the world. This further shows human’s selfishness and lack of regard to others.

  6. As a response to what we said in class today (about the ignorant people in society looking down on the "crazy" or "mad" people) I also feel as though Bierce was trying to say that no matter where we as human beings stand, whether we are herded like sheep or we try and find our own way, we are all the same, but in different ways. It's as if he is trying to say that all human beings are ignorant but in their own way and it doesn't matter if you don't follow society's rules or not, one way or another you are trying to help yourself go farther in life which is seen as selfish in this case. We also talked about how Bierce gives you hope for humanity in his definitions only to let you down later. I agree that this is true but I think he does it to show that while it may seem that we are making a decision for the greater good in the end it turns out that this was never true at all. Humans want to believe that they have done good things because it erases the guilt from our minds. Bierce brings all that guilt to light in his definitions.

  7. I don't really have that much to add to the discussion on Bierce's rhetorical strategies except to add in a few minor ideas/ theories. As we mentioned in class Bierce did tend to compare humanity to irrelevant useless items to create a stab at the whole idea humans are the most important species ever. Bierce ends up using sentence phrasing to also take a stab at the whole idea of human importance/humanity in general through the phrasings. For example Infancy states the phrase "Heaven lies about us" only to create a new phrase to create the satirical factor through inversion of sentence phrasing with "The world begins lying about us pretty soon afterward". Bierce in many of his definition was able to create the inversions to manipulate the complexities of the basic sentence structures to make the tone satirically funny. Also upon closer look the shorter definitions such as Air, Cabbage, Infancy, etc give a more blunt inversion to create Bierce's tone. In comparison longer definitions such as magnitude give a more formal diction on the formality scale to create a lengthy yet more subtle punch it seemed.

  8. My thesis statement was: Bierce views the world as an unstable society that is collectively incapable of maintaining a balanced structure and shows this world through rhetorical strategies including sarcasm, hyperbole, irony and inversion.
    Bierce seems to be criticizing every aspect of human society. None of the words that Bierce seems to choose to apply his own definitions to are really positive words. This makes it seem is purposely picking out negative words or words with neutral meanings in which he can use to criticize society to a further extent. His definitions often include terms of class such as the wealth and the poor, just as in “A Modest Proposal”. He is showing the differences and also the advantages that the wealthy have over the poor or the disadvantages the poor are faced with. How the wealthy enjoy being “distanced” (The only thing that the rich are willing for the poor to call theirs, and keep) from the poor and how the wealthy are “happy” (An agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another) because they are watching the poor live in misery while they are able to live comfortably. Collectively, it is a jab at the unstable and ruthless positions that a person upholds in any society, whether you are affluent, middle class or straight up poor. Not only is it about our positions in society, but how society collectively is full of ignorant, monstrous and plain out idiotic (A member of a large and powerful tribe whose influence in human affairs has always been dominant and controlling. The Idiot's activity is not confined to any special field of thought or action, but "pervades and regulates the whole." He has the last word in everything; his decision is un appealable. He sets the fashions and opinion of taste, dictates the limitations of speech and circumscribes conduct with a dead-line) notions towards one another.

  9. Throughout his satirical dictionary, Bierce seems to be targeting specific groups- the poor, our government, and society in general- in order to support his overall argument that human ways are incredibly flawed. In his definition of "low bred", he refers to the poor as being raised instead of brought up, which gives them an animalistic quality. He does this in order to criticize the people who have these condescending view on the poor, on our own people. He's showing us how heartless and ridiculous it sounds when he states the irony so bluntly. Similarly, he also surprised us with how true his assessments of the government are; Bierce is trying to get us to question why we give them our time and money when all they do it create more problems for us. Lastly, Bierce uses inversion, irony, and mostly sarcasm to rip apart the human ways. Everybody is flawed, but we sometimes put too blind an eye towards the subject, and we lose sight of just how terrible human beings can be towards each other. The way people can be so selfish and ignorant is sickening, and I think that Bierce is trying to get us to realize how horrible it looks when nobody sugarcoats it. For that reason, I believe that the overall purpose of Bierce's dictionary is to reawaken our awareness of our flaws, in hopes that we will gradually learn to outgrow them.

  10. With the definition of geographer, “A chap who can tell you offhand the difference between the outside of the world and the inside”, Beirce used understating. He understated the knowledge of geographers saying they can merely tell you the difference between inside and outside the earth. This makes the reader laugh at the profession, even though at the time being a successful geographer was something to be proud of. Bierce also uses satire in his exaggerations. An example would be his definition of the word debt. He describes it as "An ingenious substitute for the chain and whip of the slave-driver.” Now, the reader knows the brutality of a slave owners whip is greater then being in debt. But the exaggeration makes it harder to distinguish. Satire can consist of a lot of trickery of the reader. By exaggerating the brutality of the word debt, Bierce can rub his pessimistic views off on the reader. And although I don't believe the purpose of Bierce's dictionary was to spread a pessimistic view of the world, I do believe his purpose was to spread a more "realistic" view of society. I believe Bierce is attempting to defog the clouded minds of Americans by pointing out the discrepancies in the meanings that we want to believe in and what the words realistically mean. We like to believe debt is something someone can overcome, while according to Bierce, realistically you can never really escape your debts.

  11. > Bierce uses inversion, hyperbole, sarcasm, and irony to provide the reader with his own views of the world, which are that we live in an idiotic world, therefore explaining why he seems to be making fun of mankind as a whole. < sentence above is what I had responding to the question "Analyse the rhetorical strategies Bierce uses to convey his world view through satire."
    Bierce has this way of putting comedy in something that should not be funny. He makes some of his definitions so bluntly true, they became comical. He targets society as whole and how we function with each other. I think he sees the bigger picture, like with the idea of idiots being the ones running our country or the fact that a truthful person is actually "dumb, and illiterate." Bierce uses a lot of inversion by giving bad/sad meanings to things we usually associate with happy/good thoughts. One example would be love; it can be painful but humans associate with some happiness and warm thoughts filled with hearts and stomach butterflies and he completely twits that by making the definition as if love is a disease no one wants, making it sound unpleasant. His tone is very sarcastic almost as if he gets something we do not; like we are missing the bigger picture and he is not. Bierce makes it clear he finds most of humanity idiotic, but there is some pity coming from him. In his definition of Abnormal, he makes it sound so that the abnormal people are the normal ones, which I think says a lot about his views. I feel like he tries to convey that the downtrodden are the ones that matter and the ones he believes in. Bierce uses irony to help us realize that many of his definitions are so ridiculously exaggerated, that is serves to show us what is wrong with our society.

  12. Using irony, hyperbole, sarcasm, and inversion, Bierce targets the greed and selfishness of human nature in the Devil's Dictionary.
    Something I found interesting that I did not have an opportunity to mention in class is how Bierce took words that generally have a positive connotation and changed the meaning. For example, in his definition of love, he refers to it as "temporary insanity", and a "disease". This shows is just one place where he is being cynical. Another thing I did not get a chance to mention in class was his use of inversion. For example, the definition of the word white was "black", which is the direct opposite. This sharp contrast may seem like a shock at first, but I think this satirical definition was towards the people who are racists and think they are better than everybody else. This definition points out how everybody is equal. A final point I would like to point out is how the author used specific diction to make his point. Many times, Bierce chooses to use very formal words, which I think add to the complexity and humor as a whole. An example of which Bierce uses more formal diction is with the word bigot. He uses words such like "obstinately and zealously" in his definition, rather than 'stubbornly and enthusiastically". In this particular case, the more complex diction stands out, especially the definition as a whole is very short.

  13. My rough draft of my line is as follows: “Bierce views the world as a selfish, egotistical place through his numerous uses of bold hyperbole, well-placed sarcasm, and consistent and unrelenting irony throughout the Devil’s Dictionary.” The definitions that follow were collected after reading through numerous examples of hyperbole, sarcasm, and irony.
    hyperbole: INK- A villainous compound of tanno gallate of iron, gum-arabic and water, chiefly used to facilitate the infection of idiocy and promote intellectual crime. The properties of ink are peculiar and contradictory: it may be used to make reputations and unmake them; to blacken them and to make them white; but it is most generally and acceptably employed as a mortar to bind together the stones of an edifice of fame, and as a whitewash to conceal afterward the rascal quality of the material. There are men called journalists who have established ink baths which some persons pay money to get into, others to get out of. Not infrequently it occurs that a person who has paid to get in pays twice as much to get out.
    -The hyperbole that I noticed right away while reading this definition was that it was so long. With a word like “ink”, something so simple and straightforward, the fact that it was overstated made the reader more closely inspect the definition.
    sarcasm: BRIDE- A woman with a fine prospect of happiness behind her.
    -Upon reading this blunt definition, I had no trouble in locating the sarcasm that was cleverly placed. When you think of a bride, you think of someone who is looking forward to the rest of their life with a loved one. However, Bierce makes it seem as if a bride is leaving her happiness to join a fate that is not desirable at all.
    irony: WITCH- (1) Any ugly and repulsive old woman, in a wicked league with the devil. (2) A beautiful and attractive young woman, in wickedness a league beyond the devil.
    -The fact that this definition is separated into two parts automatically draws the reader closer to distinguish the similarity (or in this case, difference) between the two definitions. The first part is what everybody pictures a witch as being, ugly and repulsive. Next, ironically, Bierce presents an example of a young and attractive woman who is even more a witch than the last definition. In conclusion, each definition I have collected proves that Bierce views the world as a cynical, selfish place through his uses of hyperbole, sarcasm, and irony.