You might think that there have always been English language dictionaries, but in fact, the first comprehensive English dictionary was not produced until 1755 by Dr. Samuel Johnson. Johnson, a British author, moralist, literary critic, and biographer was also, luckily, a lexicographer – a person who writes dictionaries. Since Johnson wrote his dictionary there have been many other dictionaries, but his was the prototype that set the standard for all that would follow including the incomparable 20 volume, 21,728 page Oxford English Dictionary (OED).
Most dictionaries follow a few commonly accepted rules including these:
- The definition should use words that are simpler than the word being defined.
- All of the words in the definition must also be defined in that dictionary.
- A dictionary will normally contain information concerning each word’s origin.
- Many dictionaries will offer at least some sentences with examples of the use of the words being defined.
It is evident from the above that lexicographers take their work very seriously, and don’t normally include humor in their dictionaries. But even Dr. Johnson couldn’t resist the urge to take liberties now and then with his definitions. It should be noted that other lexicographers were not amused. Here are a few examples of what they disliked:
Cynic. A philosopher of the snarling or currish sort.
Dull. Not exhilarating; not delightful; as, to make dictionaries is dull work.
Lexicographer. A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.
Oats. A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.
Pension. An allowance made to any one without an equivalent. In England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country.
Politician. A man of artifice [cunning]; one of deep contrivance.
Wolf. A kind of wild dog that devours sheep.
While Dr. Johnson’s dictionary contained a few zingers, no one has come close to equaling Ambrose Bierce who compiled what has become known as The Devil’s Dictionary (1911). Bierce was the son of a farmer, and never received any formal education, so the fact that he became not only a writer, but a lexicographer (of sorts) as well is, indeed, fascinating. His dictionary was addressed to those “enlightened souls who prefer dry wine to sweet, sense to sentiment, and wit to humor.” Here are a few of its entries:
Abstainer, n. A weak person who yields to the temptation of denying himself a pleasure.
Armor, n. The kind of clothing worn by a man whose tailor is a blacksmith.
Brain, n. An apparatus with which we think that we think.
Cannon, n. An instrument employed in the rectification of national boundaries.
Debauchee, n. One who has so earnestly pursued pleasure that he has had the misfortune to overtake it.
Egotist, n. A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.
Faith, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge of things without parallel.
History, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.
Impiety, n. Your irreverence toward my deity.
Marriage, n. The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all two.
Novel, n. A short story padded
Overwork, n. A dangerous disorder affecting high public functionaries who want to go fishing.
Patience, n. A minor form or despair, disguised as a virtue.
Philanthropist, n. A rich (and usually bald) old gentleman who has trained himself to grin while his conscience is picking his pocket.
Prejudice, n. A vagrant opinion without visible means of support.
Rash, adj. Insensible to the value of our advice.
Trichinosis, n. The pig’s reply to proponents of porcophagy.
I have also run across some Bierce-like definitions written by a writer named Gordon Bowker, but I have so far failed to find a book that contains more than a few of his definitions. Be that as it may, here are some of Bowker’s gems:
Advertise, A form of prestidigitating by means of which a conjuror induces his audience to pick its own pocket under the impression that it is picking someone elses.
Bigamy, A slip of the memory and the pen in the presence of the marriage register under the influence of matrimony.
Body-builder, One who is fit for nothing.
Celibate, A member of a union opposed to the union of members.
Divorce, The stage of marriage at which sanity prevails.
Drunk, A miracle worker who, while being unable to walk on water, is frequently to be seen staggering on whiskey.
Epitaph, An irritating reminder that someone else always has the last word.
Hooker, A fisher of men.
Horoscope, A tale told by an idiot and believed by a fool.
Know-all, A benevolent ignoramus whose poverty of knowledge does not inhibit his generosity of mouth.
Libel, A slip of the pen frequently precipitating a slip of the bank balance.
Marxist, A prophet of doom who predicts the doom of profit.
Salesman, A contortionist who puts his foot in your door, his tonghe in your ear and his hand in your pocket while peddling.
Thief, A businessman who does not issue receipts.
Voltaire, the great wit, wrote what he called A Philosophical Dictionary in which he skewered various pompous people. But that will have to wait until some future post.