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Books: Review - The New Devil’s Dictionary by Rhoda Koenig

Rhoda Koenig at her home

Published: 3 November, 2011
by SIMON WROE

According to the author and journalist Rhoda Koenig, the past century has seen “an explosion of idiotic behaviour, beliefs and words”.

It might be too early to tell whether anyone was hurt in the blast, but Koenig believes it is time to start the clean up. Her book, The New Devil’s Dictionary, is the soap and water.

Here is Koenig’s definition of “accessible”: “(1) Of a subject, one that can be approached by the most intellectually handicapped, aided by the ramp of banality and the guardrail of diminished vocabulary. (2) Of a woman, a nice way of putting it.”

Or there’s “evil”: “Term used in less enlightened societies to denounce people we now know will respond well to sympathetic listening and fresh fruit.”

Making the reader laugh is not enough; Koenig wants the laughter to come through gritted teeth.

“Everything is going to hell or has gone there already. I despair of newspapers, language, schools, literature.

I despair of our society,” she says over tea, the “meal that, not requiring the skill of cooking, the expense of alcohol, or the obligation to entertain others for very long, exemplifies English hospitality”.

This perspective of “true cynicism”, Koenig suggests, is the best way “to demolish the complacency of liberal and conservative, rich and poor, male and female, young and old”.

She takes her cue from Ambrose Bierce, the author of the original Devil’s Dictionary published a century ago. While some of Bierce’s definitions are timeless (for instance: “bride” – a woman with a fine prospect of happiness behind her), the modern age has rendered others obsolete. At the same time, it has introduced us to a whole universe of public relations and “corporate-speak”.

“We have a world today where people are too shy to speak up for basic decency,” she says. “It takes a great deal more effort to be good now. Because the world not only tolerates slovenliness and ignorance and selfishness but actually encourages them.”

Koenig’s efforts go beyond the written word.

She confronts people who swear on buses or talk loudly during plays, as well as those who stand idly by while she is dealing out the reprimands. When she is not doing any of these things, she likes to paint crockery.

Although Koenig has been my neighbour in South End Green for many years, interviewing her is still intimidating. She corrects my grammar and chides me for saying “hand-picked” (the New Devil’s definition: “Superior to that chosen by the foot”). She has a cuttings book of lazy journalism – “He leans over effortlessly and fills my glass” – that I am terrified of joining.

Koenig has always written for a living, bar a short stint as a nightclub singer in New York (the city where she was born in 1949).

She was the book reviewer for New York magazine and, since moving to England in 1986, a theatre critic for Punch and The Independent.

She wrote about interior design for English Vogue, which may explain the décor of her flat, with its stuffed Ibex head and suzani quilts from Uzbekistan.

She considers herself better suited to England than America, and is “mostly assimilated”, though she will not say “pudding”. And she is happy, by and large, to wear the mantle of the cynic. “It’s a great mistake to say a cynic is someone who doesn’t believe in anything, because if you didn’t believe you wouldn’t care,” she says.

Better to think of it as a state of detachment, Koenig writes in the book’s introduction, one that shields us from the worst effects of capitalism: the artificially inflated appetites, the fads and fears.

She adds: “But detachment need not mean removal from the fray; it can be, rather, the coolness of the doctor or soldier who must destroy to do good, of the preacher who loves the sinner but hates the sin.”

The New Devil’s Dictionary by Rhoda Koenig is published on November 8 (Lyons Press) and available to buy at £10.66 from amazon.co.uk

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