Ambrose Bierce’s The Cynic’s Word Book

Ambrose Bierce’s “The Cynic’s Word Book” is an interesting approach to witticism. Rather than present the witticisms in a story, Bierce presents them in a dictionary style. He analyzes words and turns their definitions on their head. An important consideration of his approach is the reader’s knowledge of what the actual word means. In other words, the reader must be familiar with the word’s original definition in order to get the joke. For example, the word “apologize” is defined as “to lay the foundation for a future offense.” Here Bierce is playing with the idea of an apology. When an individual commits an act that went off course in some way that results in ill-treatment of someone else, he apologizes and expects to be forgiven by the party who has been treated badly. In his definition, Bierce inverts this understanding of the word apology and instead presents it as something that allows for future ill-treatment. Similarly, the word “corporation” is defined as “an ingenious device for securing individual profit without individual responsibility.” When this definition was written, almost a century ago, it was likewise an inversion of the actual meaning of “corporation.” However, given the reality of how government and business relate to one another in today’s world, Bierce’s definition might not be much of an exaggeration or inversion at all.

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