The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce
The Devil’s Dictionary was begun in a weekly paper in 1881, and was continued in a desultory way at long intervals until 1906. In that year a large part of it was published in covers with the title The Cynic’s Word Book, a name which the author had not the power to reject or happiness to approve. To quote the publishers of the present work: “This more reverent title had previously been forced upon him by the religious scruples of the last newspaper in which a part of the work had appeared, with the natural consequence that when it came out in covers the country already had been flooded by its imitators with a score of ‘cynic’ books—The Cynic’s This, The Cynic’s That, and The Cynic’s t’Other. Most of these books were merely stupid, though some of them added the distinction of silliness. Among them, they brought the word ‘cynic’ into disfavor so deep that any book bearing it was discredited in advance of publication.”
ABNORMAL, adj. Not conforming to standard. In matters of thought and conduct, to be independent is to be abnormal, to be abnormal is to be detested. Wherefore the lexicographer adviseth a striving toward the straiter [sic] resemblance of the Average Man than he hath to himself. Whoso attaineth thereto shall have peace, the prospect of death and the hope of Hell.
ABSTAINER, n. A weak person who yields to the temptation of denying himself a pleasure. A total abstainer is one who abstains from everything but abstention, and especially from inactivity in the affairs of others.
ABSURDITY, n. A statement or belief manifestly inconsistent with one’s own opinion.
ACCOUNTABILITY, n. The mother of caution.
ACCUSE, v.t. To affirm another’s guilt or unworth; most commonly as a justification of ourselves for having wronged him.
ACQUAINTANCE, n. A person whom we know well enough to borrow from, but not well enough to lend to. A degree of friendship called slight when its object is poor or obscure, and intimate when he is rich or famous. ACTUALLY, adv. Perhaps; possibly.
ADDER, n. A species of snake. So called from its habit of adding funeral outlays to the other expenses of living.
ADMIRATION, n. Our polite recognition of another’s resemblance to ourselves.
ADMONITION, n. Gentle reproof, as with a meat-axe. Friendly warning.
AGITATOR, n. A statesman who shakes the fruit trees of his neighbors —to dislodge the worms.
ALLIANCE, n. In international politics, the union of two thieves who have their hands so deeply inserted in each other’s pockets that they cannot separately plunder a third.
ALONE, adj. In bad company.
APOLOGIZE, v.i. To lay the foundation for a future offence.
ARMOR, n. The kind of clothing worn by a man whose tailor is a blacksmith
ARREST, v.t. Formally to detain one accused of unusualness.
BAAL, n. An old deity formerly much worshiped under various names. As Baal he was popular with the Phoenicians; as Belus or Bel he had the honor to be served by the priest Berosus, who wrote the famous account of the Deluge; as Babel he had a tower partly erected to his glory on the Plain of Shinar. From Babel comes our English word “babble.” Under whatever name worshiped, Baal is the Sun-god. As Beelzebub he is the god of flies, which are begotten of the sun’s rays on the stagnant water. In Physicia Baal is still worshiped as Bolus, and as Belly he is adored and served with abundant sacrifice by the priests of Guttledom.
BABE or BABY, n. A misshapen creature of no particular age, sex, or condition, chiefly remarkable for the violence of the sympathies and antipathies it excites in others, itself without sentiment or emotion. There have been famous babes; for example, little Moses, from whose adventure in the bulrushes the Egyptian hierophants of seven centuries before doubtless derived their idle tale of the child Osiris being preserved on a floating lotus leaf.
BACK, n. That part of your friend which it is your privilege to contemplate in your adversity
BAIT, n. A preparation that renders the hook more palatable. The best kind is beauty.
BAROMETER, n. An ingenious instrument which indicates what kind of weather we are having.
BASILISK, n. The cockatrice. A sort of serpent hatched form the egg of a cock. The basilisk had a bad eye, and its glance was fatal. Many infidels deny this creature’s existence, but Semprello Aurator saw and handled one that had been blinded by lightning as a punishment for having fatally gazed on a lady of rank whom Jupiter loved. Juno afterward restored the reptile’s sight and hid it in a cave. Nothing is so well attested by the ancients as the existence of the basilisk, but the cocks have stopped laying.
BASTINADO, n. The act of walking on wood without exertion.
BATH, n. A kind of mystic ceremony substituted for religious worship, with what spiritual efficacy has not been determined.
BATTLE, n. A method of untying with the teeth of a political knot that would not yield to the tongue.
BELLADONNA, n. In Italian a beautiful lady; in English a deadly poison. A striking example of the essential identity of the two tongues.
BENEDICTINES, n. An order of monks otherwise known as black friars. She thought it a crow, but it turn out to be A monk of St. Benedict croaking a text. “Here’s one of an order of cooks,” said she— “Black friars in this world, fried black in the next.” “The Devil on Earth” (London, 1712)
BIGOT, n. One who is obstinately and zealously attached to an opinion that you do not entertain.
BIRTH, n. The first and direst of all disasters. As to the nature of it there appears to be no uniformity. Castor and Pollux were born from the egg. Pallas came out of a skull. Galatea was once a block of stone. Peresilis, who wrote in the tenth century, avers that he grew up out of the ground where a priest had spilled holy water. It is known that Arimaxus was derived from a hole in the earth, made by a stroke of lightning. Leucomedon was the son of a cavern in Mount Aetna, and I have myself seen a man come out of a wine cellar.
BLACKGUARD, n. A man whose qualities, prepared for display like a box of berries in a market—the fine ones on top—have been opened on the wrong side. An inverted gentleman.
BLANK-VERSE, n. Unrhymed iambic pentameters—the most difficult kind of English verse to write acceptably; a kind, therefore, much affected by those who cannot acceptably write any kind.
BODY-SNATCHER, n. A robber of grave-worms. One who supplies the young physicians with that with which the old physicians have supplied the undertaker. The hyena.
BOUNDARY, n. In political geography, an imaginary line between two nations, separating the imaginary rights of one from the imaginary rights of the other.
BRAHMA, n. He who created the Hindoos, who are preserved by Vishnu and destroyed by Siva—a rather neater division of labor than is found among the deities of some other nations. The Abracadabranese, for example, are created by Sin, maintained by Theft and destroyed by Folly. The priests of Brahma, like those of Abracadabranese, are holy and learned men who are never naughty.
BRANDY, n. A cordial composed of one part thunder-and-lightning, one part remorse, two parts bloody murder, one part death-hell-and-the grave and four parts clarified Satan. Dose, a headful all the time. Brandy is said by Dr. Johnson to be the drink of heroes. Only a hero will venture to drink it.
CALAMITY, n. A more than commonly plain and unmistakable reminder that the affairs of this life are not of our own ordering. Calamities are of two kinds: misfortune to ourselves, and good fortune to others.
CALLOUS, adj. Gifted with great fortitude to bear the evils afflicting another.
CANNIBAL, n. A gastronome of the old school who preserves the simple tastes and adheres to the natural diet of the pre-pork period.
CANNON, n. An instrument employed in the rectification of national boundaries.
CAPITAL PUNISHMENT, a penalty regarding the justice and expediency of which many worthy persons—including all the assassins—entertain grave misgivings.
CARMELITE, n. A mendicant friar of the order of Mount Carmel. As Death was a-rising out one day, Across Mount Camel he took his way, Where he met a mendicant monk, Some three or four quarters drunk, With a holy leer and a pious grin, Ragged and fat and as saucy as sin, Who held out his hands and cried: “Give, give in Charity’s name, I pray. Give in the name of the Church. O give, Give that her holy sons may live!” And Death replied, Smiling long and wide: “I’ll give, holy father, I’ll give thee—a ride.” With a rattle and bang Of his bones, he sprang From his famous Pale Horse, with his spear; By the neck and the foot Seized the fellow, and put Him astride with his face to the rear. The Monarch laughed loud with a sound that fell Like clods on the coffin’s sounding shell: “Ho, ho! A beggar on horseback, they say, Will ride to the devil!”—and thump Fell the flat of his dart on the rump Of the charger, which galloped away. Faster and faster and faster it flew, Till the rocks and the flocks and the trees that grew By the road were dim and blended and blue To the wild, wild eyes Of the rider—in size Resembling a couple of blackberry pies. Death laughed again, as a tomb might laugh At a burial service spoiled, And the mourners’ intentions foiled By the body erecting Its head and objecting To further proceedings in its behalf. Many a year and many a day Have passed since these events away. The monk has long been a dusty corse, And Death has never recovered his horse. For the friar got hold of its tail, And steered it within the pale Of the monastery gray, Where the beast was stabled and fed With barley and oil and bread Till fatter it grew than the fattest friar, And so in due course was appointed Prior. G.J.
CARNIVOROUS, adj. Addicted to the cruelty of devouring the timorous vegetarian, his heirs and assigns.
CARTESIAN, adj. Relating to Descartes, a famous philosopher, author of the celebrated dictum, Cogito ergo sum—whereby he was pleased to suppose he demonstrated the reality of human existence. The dictum might be improved, however, thus: Cogito cogito ergo cogito sum— “I think that I think, therefore I think that I am;” as close an approach to certainty as any philosopher has yet made.