Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Of Dictionaries Sired By Satan

I'm normally not in the habit of reading dictionaries in my spare time. Not my cup of tea, not my bowl of warm broth, not my daily glass of hot milk. Blah. I've decided, though, to make an exception in the case of The Devil's Dictionary, written by one of America's legendary satirists: Ambrose Bierce.
Bierce foreshadows near-contemporary writers such as DNA (no, I'm not gonna spell it out for you) in the kind of humour he exhibits. Remember The Meaning of Liff? Subtle, nice. Check:

BELLADONNA, n. In Italian a beautiful lady; in English a deadly poison. A striking example of the essential identity of the two tongues.

[...]

CERBERUS, n. The watch-dog of Hades, whose duty it was to guard the entrance -- against whom or what does not clearly appear; everybody, sooner or later, had to go there, and nobody wanted to carry off the entrance. Cerberus is known to have had three heads, and some of the poets have credited him with as many as a hundred. Professor Graybill, whose clerky erudition and profound knowledge of Greek give his opinion great weight, has averaged all the estimates, and makes the number twenty-seven -- a judgment that would be entirely conclusive if Professor Graybill had known (a) something about dogs, and (b) something about arithmetic.

[...]

RESPONSIBILITY, n. A detachable burden easily shifted to the shoulders of God, Fate, Fortune, Luck or one's neighbor. In the days of astrology it was customary to unload it upon a star.

REVERENCE, n. The spiritual attitude of a man to a god and a dog to a man.
And so on and so forth. Read the rest here.

Which reminds me of Samuel Johnson's original dictionary. Remember him? Guy who started the lexicography movement, singularly responsible for more deaths due to boredom than all plagues and famines put together.
He looked thusly:


I had a lot of fun as a kid, reading out snappy quotes from weird dictionaries to my parents. (I had a fairly twisted childhood.) Peruse:
OATS, n. A grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people. [From Johnson.]

BABY, n. A loud noise at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other. [I had assumed as a kid that this was from Johnson, but have lately found out that such is not the case. Ahh well. Another iota of knowledge added to my ever-increasing share.]
To conclude, folks: Can anyone tell me the word for a person who looks up unusual meanings of commonly-used words in dictionaries?
Hurry up, I ain't got all day.

3 comments:

I_Rule said...

How about 'vehla'? ! :)))

Mugger Much said...

You might just be right. Sigh.

~Lord Anshul said...

man !! this dictionary is unbelievable. now that i have no work at office and i have to grace them with my formal physical presence, you gave me a reason to smile.

and as for u..try this
http://www.swapmeetdave.com/Humor/Farts.htm

and to think of it, you wrote this thing just after ur K interview. whoa !! life is beautiful. :)