Excerpt: ‘The Devil’s Dictionary’

the devils dictionary, ambrose bierce

Select entries from Ambrose Bierce’s lexicon of cynicism, bitterness, and humor, produced over a 30-year period beginning in 1881.

Apologize, v.i. To lay the foundation for a future offence.

Bard, n. A person who makes rhymes. The word is one of the numerous aliases under which the poet seeks to veil his identity and escape opprobrium.

Betray, v.t. To make payment for confidence.

Competitor, n. A scoundrel who desires that which we desire.

Compliment, n. A loan that bears interest.

Connoisseur, n. A specialist who knows everything about something and nothing about anything else.

An old wine-bibber having been smashed in a railway collision, some wine was poured upon his lips to revive him. “Pauillac, 1873,” he murmured and died.

Coward, n. One who in a perilous emergency thinks with his legs.

This article appears in the Summer 2021 issue of Alta Journal.

Debauchee, n. One who has so earnestly pursued pleasure that he has had the misfortune to overtake it.

Destiny, n. [1.] A tyrant’s authority for crime and a fool’s excuse for failure. [2.] A force alleged to control affairs, principally quoted by erring human beings to excuse their failures.

Diary, n. A daily record of that part of one’s life, which he can relate to himself without blushing.

Hearst kept a diary wherein were writ
All that he had of wisdom and of wit.
So the Recording Angel, when Hearst died,
Erased all entries of his own and cried:
“I’ll judge you by your diary.” Said Hearst:
“Thank you.”

Diplomacy, n. The patriotic art of lying for one’s country.

Eccentricity, n. A method of distinction so cheap that fools employ it to accentuate their incapacity.

Editor, n. A person who combines the judicial functions of Minos, Rhadamanthus and Æacus, but is placable with an obolus; a severely virtuous censor, but so charitable withal that he tolerates the virtues of others and the vices of himself; who flings about him the splintering lightning and sturdy thunders of admonition till he resembles a bunch of firecrackers petulantly uttering its mind at the tail of a dog; then straightway murmurs a mild, melodious lay, soft as the cooing of a donkey intoning its prayer to the evening star. Master of mysteries and lord of law, high-pinnacled upon the throne of thought, his face suffused with the dim splendors of the Transfiguration, his legs intertwisted and his tongue a-cheek, the editor spills his will along the paper and cuts it off in lengths to suit.

Fool, n. A person who pervades the domain of intellectual speculation and diffuses himself through the channels of moral activity. He is omnific, omniform, omnipercipient, omniscient, omnipotent. He it was who invented letters, printing, the railroad, the steamboat, the telegraph, the platitude and the circle of the sciences. He created patriotism and taught the nations war—founded theology, philosophy, law, medicine and Chicago. He established monarchical and republican government. He is from everlasting to everlasting—such as creation’s dawn beheld he fooleth now. In the morning of time he sang upon primitive hills, and in the noonday of existence headed the procession of being. His grandmotherly hand has warmly tucked-in the set sun of civilization, and in the twilight he prepares Man’s evening meal of milk-and-morality and turns down the covers of the universal grave. And after the rest of us shall have retired for the night of eternal oblivion he will sit up to write a history of human civilization.

Forgiveness, n. A stratagem to throw an offender off his guard and catch him red-handed in his next offense.

Gallows, n. A stage for the performance of miracle plays, in which the leading actor is translated to heaven. In this country the gallows is chiefly remarkable for the number of persons who escape it.

Impunity, n. Wealth.

Insane, adj. Addicted to the conviction that others are insane.

Jealousy, n. The seamy side of love.

Kiss, n. A word invented by the poets as a rhyme for “bliss.” It is supposed to signify, in a general way, some kind of rite or ceremony appertaining to a good understanding; but the manner of its performance is unknown to this lexicographer.

Kleptomaniac, n. A rich thief.

Longevity, n. Uncommon extension of the fear of death.

Love, n. A temporary insanity curable by marriage or by removal of the patient from the influences under which he incurred the disorder.

Omen, n. A sign that something will happen if nothing happens.

Opiate, n. An unlocked door in the prison of Identity. It leads into the jail yard.

Piano, n. A parlor utensil for subduing the impenitent visitor. It is operated by depressing the keys of the machine and the spirits of the audience.

Publish, n. In literary affairs, to become the fundamental element in a cone of critics.

Quill, n. An implement of torture yielded by a goose and commonly wielded by an ass. This use of the quill is now obsolete, but its modern equivalent, the steel pen, is wielded by the same everlasting Presence.

Railroad, n. The chief of many mechanical devices enabling us to get away from where we are to where we are no better off.

Rascal, n. A fool considered under another aspect.

Revolution, n. In politics, an abrupt change in the form of misgovernment. Specifically, in American history, the substitution of the rule of an Administration for that of a Ministry, whereby the welfare and happiness of the people were advanced a full half-inch.

Rich, adj. Holding in trust and subject to an accounting the property of the indolent, the incompetent, the unthrifty, the envious and the luckless. That is the view that prevails in the underworld, where the Brotherhood of Man finds its most logical development and candid advocacy. To denizens of the midworld the word means good and wise.

Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited.

Self-esteem, n. An erroneous appraisement.

Twice, adv. Once too often.

Ultimatum, n. In diplomacy, a last demand before resorting to concessions.

Vanity, n. The tribute of a fool to the worth of the nearest ass.

Vote, n. The instrument and symbol of a freeman’s power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country.

Wit, n. The salt with which the American humorist spoils his intellectual cookery by leaving it out.

Year, n. A period of three hundred and sixty-five disappointments.

Zeal, n. A certain nervous disorder afflicting the young and inexperienced. A passion that goeth before a sprawl.•

Some of these entries have been edited for brevity. We relied on The Unabridged Devil’s Dictionary, by Ambrose Bierce, published by the University of Georgia Press (2002) and available from Bookshop.

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