JF Ptak Science Books Post 1916

Johnson, SamuelSamuel Johnson and Ambrose Bierce compiled dictionaries–two different types, two different efforts, 150 years apart. Some think of Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language (1755) as being the first of the English language, but it is hardly so, being a sort-of late-comer, 150 years after the first English dictionary appeared. Of course Johnson's was the first bona fide "professional;" dictionary, against which all others are to be measured. 2000+ pages long, Johnson's effort is also a type of historico-novel-dictionary (Histovelary?)–he inserted histories of words, applications, and a tremendous amount of his own bias. (For example, his famous definition of "lexicographer: : a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in
tracing the original and detailing the signification of words".) The book sometimes reads like a novel–or at least, I think that a person could force a novel out of it, and not simply because the book has all of the parts of a novel scattered about. It is an odd book, maybe the only of its kind, a disciplined and airy encyclopedic romp through the history of words and ideas, all presented by a compiler who was also its author–and accomplished pretty much on his won.

Bierce, AmbroseWhere Johnson wrote with some fair immoderation of bias, Ambrose Bierce wrote with nothing but bias. His work, The Devil's Dictionary (1911), is a work of deep observation and scathing wit. It stands as a dictionary of a personal philosophy more than anything else, written by an acerbic iconoclast of cunning and skepticism. Comparing definitions of the two side-by-side is an interesting exercise, if for no other reason than it is good and unexpected reading. Bitter Bierce was a wonderful writer with a sharp and jaundicy eye that saw the third side of a two-sided thing, and applied that sight to his unexpected masterwork.

So over the next bit we'll alphabetically grze through selections of the two works, comparing interesting words.

A: Artist/art


ARTISAN s. an artist, an inferiour. Manufacturer, low tradesman.

ARTIST, s. a professor of an art, a skilful man.

ARTLESS a. unskilful, without art or fraud.

ARTLESSLY, ad. without art, naturally.


ART, n. This word has no definition. Its origin is related as follows by the ingenious Father Gassalasca Jape, S.J.

One day a wag — what would the wretch be at? –
Shifted a letter of the cipher RAT,
And said it was a god's name! Straight arose
Fantastic priests and postulants (with shows,
And mysteries, and mummeries, and hymns,
And disputations dire that lamed their limbs)
To serve his temple and maintain the fires,
Expound the law, manipulate the wires.
Amazed, the populace that rites attend,
Believe whate'er they cannot comprehend,
And, inly edified to learn that two
Half-hairs joined so and so (as Art can do)
Have sweeter values and a grace more fit
Than Nature's hairs that never have been split,
Bring cates and wines for sacrificial feasts,
And sell their garments to support the priests.

ARTLESSNESS, n. A certain engaging quality to which women attain by long study and severe practice upon the admiring male, who is pleased to fancy it resembles the candid simplicity of his young.

A Ass/Arse


ARSE. The buttocks, or hind part of an animal./
TO HANG AN ARSE. A vulagar phrase, signifying to be very tardy, sluggish or dilatoryh.


ASS, n.A public singer with a good voice but no ear. In Virginia City, Nevada, he is called the Washoe Canary, in Dakota, the Senator, and everywhere the Donkey. The animal is widely and variously celebrated in the literature, art and religion of every age and country; no other so engages and fires the human imagination as this noble vertebrate. Indeed, it is doubted by some (Ramasilus, lib. II., De Clem., and C. Stantatus, De Temperamente) if it is not a god; and as such we know it was worshiped by the Etruscans, and, if we may believe Macrobious, by the Cupasians also. Of the only two animals admitted into the Mahometan Paradise along with the souls of men, the ass that carried Balaam is one, the dog of the Seven Sleepers the other. This is no small distinction. From what has been written about this beast might be compiled a library of great splendor and magnitude, rivalling that of the Shakespearean cult, and that which clusters about the Bible. It may be said, generally, that all literature is more or less Asinine.

"Hail, holy Ass!" the quiring angels sing;
"Priest of Unreason, and of Discords King!"
Great co-Creator, let Thy glory shine:
God made all else, the Mule, the Mule is thine!"

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One Response to An Alphabet of Dictionaries-at-Odds: Ambrose Bierce & Sam Johnson // ART & ASS

  1. Jeff Donlan says:

    Ah, Ol’ Brosie. Such a joy. I just yesterday used a Bierce definition: “Telescope, n. A device having a relation to the eye similar to that of the telephone to the ear, enabling distant objects to plague us with a multitude of needless details.” Dyspepsia is a marvelous thing. Thanks for the reminder that Johnson had his own personal take on things. I shall have to look.