Two Beautiful Dictionaries

Spread the love

by Fraser Hibbitt for the Carl Kruse Blog

Between 1870 and the turn of the 20th century, two books were written that despite their distance of creation (the Atlantic separated them) were in mood and idea very similar. I am unaware if anything of this kind has been written since. Perhaps concerns have been elsewhere. There is no doubt that the sentiment of these books has regularly found a comfortable place in works of satire, not to mention in the mind of anyone who has held in scorn how another person speaks. In the age of mass advertising, the play of language is expected to the point of boredom. “Who knows what subliminal trick they have pulled on the viewer”. Advertising seems an illegitimate offspring of the satiric vein, happy to churn out the same disingenuity that the satirist wishes to correct. But we all know about that.    

The books are Flaubert’s The Dictionary of Received Ideas and Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary. I’ll quote both of them at random to give you the idea.

From Flaubert:

            Memory: Complain of your own, and indeed boast of not having any. But roar indignantly if anyone says you lack judgement.

            Mendicity: Should be prohibited and never is.

            Mephistophelian: Must be said of any bitter laugh.

From Bierce:

            Esteem: The degree of favourable regard that is due to one who has the power to serve us and has not yet refused. Payment in full for a benefaction.

            Estoppel: In law, the kind of a stopple with which a man is corked up with his plea inside him.

And so on and so on. Flaubert’s dictionary wasn’t published during his lifetime – it was a side project he felt compelled to write. Knowing his meticulous writing habits, it’s fitting that his attention would be grabbed by the innocuous, the commonplace, and the general abuse of expression he heard around Paris and Rouen. Bierce, a well-travelled, prolific, and versatile writer, satire of course amongst them, worked in San Francisco. The first affectation of reading through these dictionaries is the thought: I’m above all this. Well, perhaps, at least (at most) when you’re comfortable with a group, speaking freely, embodying your language, as they say. But this sort of reliance on the ‘ready-made’ statement, opinion, is never far off; small talk and the rest of it.

A scenario comes to mind: two people meet and begin to speak. They talk about what they’ve been up to. They are probably worldly-minded as it is difficult not to be these days, despite most of us having such limited experience of themselves and the world. Or perhaps they talk about some recent movie and then how one of them is recently into a new fad. Their talk is completely vacant of any emotive force. After 10-15 minutes of this, they both let out a gasp as if they had been applying themselves to some strenuous task. They now speak freely, spontaneously, serious and sad, light and unassuming.

It is difficult to imagine that any meaningful talk could be based on the commonplace; that any individual depth can be reached through it and that anyone can be proud of themselves, energised, by declaiming things they know are such commonplaces. I’ve caught myself a few times after speaking with a slightly sour taste – not that there isn’t something funny about being a part of the factory. But a life of commonplace would truly be sad especially when learned linguists attest to language being infinitely malleable to expression. The commonplace is a basic lubricant, only suggestive to another person that you at least exist.

The main point of these dictionaries isn’t definition alone; it’s of course to do with the speakers and the ideas that fashion them. As Bierce’s definition of ‘esteem’ shows, and this is more in line with the maxims of La Rochefoucauld: ‘As a rule we only praise unreservedly those who admire us’; the gap between how we act, how we clothe ourselves, and what we mean is a wide one. It couldn’t be any other way and it shouldn’t be. The only place where it ought to be reined in is in politics. See George Orwell’s ‘Language & Politics’: ‘political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectful, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind’. But what would we be putting our faith in! Up on the podium, even if you brashly admitted to being utterly clueless, the persona still transforms into rhetoric, still instils a kind of belief in the listener.

Compiling these dictionaries is a way to rip off the mask, to throw a light on the dissembler. Bierce, Flaubert, and La Rochefoucauld wrote their revelations near the end of their lives. It is instructive for the younger reader to know this, but it is also a joke because they now know they have to live through it. And we are all prone to forget any lesson we’ve learned once we’re thrown into the strange crucible of living. Look at all the slight shifts of expression as soon as some new people come around. You don’t get away from self-love and the myriad hoops it forces you through. In Flaubert’s dictionary, he writes: ‘Stoicism: Is impossible’.  

The Carl Kruse Blog Homepage is at
Contact: carl AT carlkruse DOT com
Other articles by Fraser include O’Shaughnessy An Ode, Knotted Brows, and After Google Glass.
Also find Carl Kruse on Pinterest and on Kruse at Tumblr.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *