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Book Review: The Forbidden Political Dictionary Complete and Unapproved by John Clifton

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Have you ever read The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce? When I was in my late teens I went through a stage where I was reading whatever I could get my hands on about witchcraft. Many girls go through this, probably because when you’re a teenager you feel like a witch—misunderstood, alienated, and persecuted. I added The Devil’s Dictionary to my small collection, bought only on the strength of the front cover which was red and featured tiny demons.

If you’ve read The Devil’s Dictionary you know that it is not a book about demonology or witchcraft. Instead, it’s a small dictionary that offers perverse, ironic definitions of a selection of terms. It translates what people say into what they mean. For example, Bierce defined “lawyer” as “one skilled in the circumvention of the law.” I was not disappointed in this little volume; I found it amusing and accurate. Even as an adolescent, I was cynical (as defined by Bierce, a cynic is “a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.”)

Many years have passed, and another slim volume with a red cover has been published, The Forbidden Political Dictionary – Complete and Unapproved. Again, it is a dictionary of terms, many of which did not exist when Ambrose Bierce wrote, with their true meanings. Written by John Clifton, The Forbidden Political Dictionary defines “lawyer” as “One versed in litigation and skilled in prevarication who represents clients and misrepresents facts in order to beat the law.” Like me, John Clifton is an admirer of Ambrose Bierce. I know this because I read the forward to his book, something he thinks no one will do.

Clifton is also a cynic, which he defines as “Perceptive person who sees falsity where others see truth and truth where others see falsity. Cynics are often deemed perverse, nasty souls, but are actually honest, nasty souls.” His definitions will strike a chord of familiarity (“interim appointment, n. Sale of a vacated office”) in those who are exposed to politics, even by accident.

I was delighted that one of the terms he includes is “yellow dog Democrat,” one which my father applied to himself until he became a Republican. My southern husband had never heard that term until he met me, which I found odd because my father was from Nebraska, my mother from New York, and I from New Jersey, and we all used it. Clifton defines “yellow dog Democrats” as “traditional Democrats, identified with the old South, originally so-named because they ‘would rather vote for a yellow dog than a Republican.’ Ironically they eventually became Republicans, presumably even worse than yellow dogs.”

From “academia” to “zoo,” Clifton boldly dares to cleverly define words of mass disinformation. Yes, he is taking shots at our political morass, but with a target that big, who could fault him? The Forbidden Political Dictionary is a perfect book to browse through, reading a little bit at a time, but I defy you to do that. Once you start, it’s hard to put down

Bottom Line: Would I buy The Forbidden Political Dictionary? Of course. I’m a sucker for books with red covers (and this one would make a great gift for birthdays, graduates, Father’s Day, etc.).

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About Miss Bob Etier

  • I love the Devil’s Dictionary… my copy has come with me on every move since high school. This new book, though, doesn’t seem to exhibit Bierce’s pithiness, at least not in the few examples you give. Here’s Bierce, for example, on peace.

    Peace: In international affairs, a period of cheating between two periods of fighting.

    Or this one:

    IGNORAMUS, n. A person unacquainted with certain kinds of knowledge familiar to yourself, and having certain other kinds that you know nothing about.