The Devil’s Dictionary (6)

Another dip into Ambrose Bierce’s fascinating The Devil’s Dictionary, first published in book form in 1906. We all claim to have friendships, but some are more durable than others. Perhaps no wonder if Bierce’s definition is to be believed. Friendship, he claims, is “a ship big enough to carry two in fair weather, but only one in foul”. To be reduced to a state of being friendless means that you have no favours to bestow, are destitute of fortune and addicted to utterance of truth and common sense.

One reason for being bereft of friends is that they have all died. A funeral is an opportunity to pay our last respects, but in Bierce’s eyes it is “a pageant whereby we attest our respect for the dead by enriching the undertaker, and strengthen our grief by an expenditure that deepens our groans and doubles our tears”. Still, we can always look to the future, “that period of time in which our affairs prosper, our friends are true and our happiness is assured”. Of course, the future never comes.

In the days before fountain pens, biros and the now ubiquitous keyboard, people used to write with quills made from the feathers of a goose. Bierce defines a goose as a “bird that supplies quills for writing. These, by some occult process of nature, are penetrated and suffused with various degrees of the bird’s intellectual energies and emotional character, so when inked and drawn mechanically across paper by a person called an “author”, there results a very fair and accurate transcript of the fowl’s thought and feeling. The difference in geese, as discovered by this ingenious method, is considerable; many are found to only have trivial and insignificant powers, but some are seen to be very great geese indeed.”    

If Bierce’s theory us correct, relatively few geese are proficient in grammar which, he notes, is “a system of pitfalls thoughtfully prepared for the feet of the self-made man, along the path by which he advances with distinction”. Indeed.

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