It’s time to update ‘The Devil’s Dictionary’

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Just a little over 100 years ago, American author Ambrose Bierce published “The Devil’s Dictionary,” a compilation of some 1,013 words with revised definitions.

Bierce, a contemporary of Mark Twain and close to his equal in wit, assembled the lexicon from three decades of columns he’d written for the San Francisco Wasp magazine and later the San Francisco Examiner.

He added more definitions later, and by 1906, he had signed a contract with Doubleday to publish the compilation.

A few of his more notable definitions:

Academe, n. An ancient school where morality and philosophy were taught.

Academy, n. [from academe] A modern school where football is taught.

Apologize, v.i. To lay the foundation for a future offense.

Beauty, n. The power by which a woman charms a lover and terrifies a husband.

Egotist, n. A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.

Bierce and his “Devil’s Dictionary” came to mind recently when I was struck by how outdated many of today’s common word definitions have become.

I offer a few examples – first the word, a short definition and then an explanation.

Eclectic, adj. Awful.

The word once described a subject that incorporated a wide range of styles or sources. But, it has come to mean that what you’re trying to describe is indescribable, and in most cases indescribably bad.

I’ve seen “eclectic” clothing stores with racks of shirts I wouldn’t wear to a fire. There are “eclectic” furniture stores with appointments so offensive that no self-respecting environmentalist would plant them at a yard sale.

Georgia State University’s WRAS radio describes its nighttime lineup as “eclectic.”

That’s when an otherwise thoughtful management turns over the keys to one of the most powerful radio stations in the country to students. What once was an exciting forum for exciting, interesting new music is now the tarmac for personal (painfully personal) tours of what can only be described as “head-banger schmaltz” and “curious noise.”

I confess that I don’t know everything about today’s music, but I do know what I dislike. This lineup gives life to “dead air.”

Grocery shop, n. Use your cell phone.

The shopping cart was invented in 1936, and through most of its history has been pushed from behind, usually with two hands.

But the use of cell phones has given rise to an innovation in propulsion. Many shoppers today walk beside the cart, grabbing its frame, pulling it alongside as they browse and chat, cluttering the already narrow aisles.

For traditional shoppers, it’s hard to fathom.

Worse, these riveting conversations often continue to the checkout aisles where the shopper unloads the cart with one hand, unholsters a check card and completes the transaction with their neck tilted to their shoulder like an ancient Alexandrian bust.

Storytelling, n. Recounting a routine event to the strains of routine background music.

I’m saddened by the growing popularity of modern storytelling, especially the array of programs littering public radio on weekends.

You’ve got storytelling with meandering jazz. You’ve got storytelling with a beat. You’ve got storytelling with sound effects.

They all have one thing in common: When disassembled, the stories themselves fall far short of what’s advertised, and the music is even less interesting – much less.

Together, though, they create an illusion that what you’re hearing is possibly worth your time.

It isn’t.

Great writing and great stories require no soundtrack. Byron and Dickens needed no accessories.

Long before the popularity of music videos, I spoke with a nationally acclaimed television photojournalist, telling him I’d like to someday create news features and put them to music.

He replied that if a story needs music, it can’t be much of a story.

He was right.

What a shame no one has the ability to mine for stories interesting enough to stand on their own. Today’s stories require accompaniment, just like shopping for groceries, just like almost everything else.


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