THE DEVIL’S DICTIONARY

By Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Bierce (1842—ca. 1914), a Civil War veteran, was one of the most noted journalists of his time. In addition to writing short stories, Bierce penned a newspaper column in which his satirical definitions first appeared under the title "The Demon’s Dictionary." Bierce re-titled the collected partial lexicon "The Devil’s Dictionary." Two years after its publication he traveled into revolution-torn Mexico and was never heard from again.

[For the purposes of reproduction, the following is an abridgement.]

Abatis, n. Rubbish in front of a fort, to prevent the rubbish outside from molesting the rubbish inside.

Ability, n. The natural equipment to accomplish some small part of the meaner ambitions distinguishing able men from dead ones. In the last analysis ability is commonly found to consist mainly in a high degree of solemnity. Perhaps, however, this impressive quality is rightly appraised; it is no easy task to be solemn.

Abrupt, adj. Sudden, without ceremony, like the arrival of a cannon-shot and the

departure of the soldier whose interests are most affected by it.

Achievement, n. The death of endeavor and the birth of disgust.

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 and famous.

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

Belladonna, n. In Italian a beautiful lady; in English a deadly poison. A striking example of the essential identity of the two tongues.

Bigot, n. One who is obstinately and zealously attached to an opinion that you do not entertain.

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.

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.

Bride, n. A woman with a fine prospect of happiness behind her.

Callous, adj. Gifted with great fortitude to bear the evils afflicting another.

Congratulation, n. The civility of envy.

Consolation, n. The knowledge that a better man is more unfortunate than yourself.

Consult, v.t. To seek another’s approval of a course already decided on.

Conversation, n. A fair for the display of the minor mental commodities, each exhibitor being too intent upon the arrangement of his own wares to observe those of his neighbor.

Corporation, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.

Day, n. A period of twenty-four hours, mostly misspent.

Delegation, n. In America politics, an article of merchandise that comes in sets.

Distance, n. The only thing that the rich are willing for the poor to call theirs, and keep.

Dramatist, n. One who adapts plays from the French.

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

Education, n. That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.

Emotion, n. A prostrating disease caused by a determination of the heart to the head. It is sometimes accompanied by a copious discharge of hydrated chloride of sodium from the eyes.

Envy, n. Emulation adapted to the meanest capacity.

Eulogy, n. Praise of a person who has either the advantages of wealth and power, or the consideration to be dead.

Famous, adj. Conspicuously miserable.

Fashion, n. A despot whom the wise ridicule and obey.

Fib, n. A lie that has not cut its teeth.

Fidelity, n. A virtue peculiar to those who are about to be betrayed.

Friendship, n. A ship big enough to carry two in fair weather, but only one in foul.

Funeral, n. A pageant whereby we attest our respect for the dead by enriching the undertaker, and strengthen our grief by an expenditure that deepens our groans and doubles our tears.

Future, n. That period of time in which out affairs prosper, our friends are true and our happiness is assured.

Generous, adj. Originally this word meant noble by birth and was rightly applied to a great multitude of persons. It now means noble by nature and is taking a bit of a rest.

Grammar, n. A system of pitfalls thoughtfully prepared for the feet of the self-made man, along the path by which he advances to distinction.

Hag, n. An elderly lady whom you do not happen to like; sometimes called, also, a hen, or cat.

Handkerchief, n. A small square of silk or linen, used in various ignoble offices about the face and especially serviceable at funerals to conceal the lack of tears.

Historian, n. A broad-gauge gossip.

History, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.

Homicide, n. The slaying of one human being by another. There are four kinds of homicide: felonious, excusable, justifiable and praiseworthy, but it makes no great difference to the person slain whether he fell by one kind or another—the classification is for the advantage of lawyers.

I is the first letter of the alphabet, the first word of the language, the first thought of the mind, the first object of affection. In grammar it is a pronoun of the first person and singular number. Its plural is said to be We, but how there can be more than one myself is doubtless clearer to the grammarians than it is to the author of this incomparable dictionary.

Idiot, n. A member of a large and powerful tribe whose influence in human affairs has always been dominant and controlling.

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

Imagination, n. A warehouse of facts, with poet and liar in joint ownership.

Indecision, n. The chief element of success.

Infancy, n. The period of our lives when, according to Wordsworth, "Heaven lies about us." The world begins lying about us pretty soon afterward.

Injustice, n. A burden which of all those that we load upon others and carry ourselves is lightest in the hands and heaviest upon the back.

Jealous, adj. Unduly concerned about the preservation of that which can be lost onlly if not worth keeping.

Justice, n. A commodity which in a more or less adulterated condition the State sells to the citizen as a reward for his allegiance, taxes and personal service.

Kindness, n. A brief preface to ten volumes of exaction.

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.

Lexicographer, n. A pestilent fellow who, under the pretense of recording some particular stage in the development of language, does what he can to arrest its growth, stiffen its flexibility and mechanize its methods. For your lexicographer, having written his dictionary, comes to be considered "as one having authority," whereas his function is only to make a record, not to give a law. The natural servility of the human understanding having invested him with the judicial power, surrenders its rights of reason and submits itself to a chronicle as if it were a statute. Let the dictionary (for example) mark a good word as "obsolete" or "obsolescent" and few men thereafter venture to use it, whatever their need of it and however desirable its restoration to favor—whereby the process of impoverishment is accelerated and speech decays. On the contrary, the bold and discerning writer who, recognizing the truth that language must grow by innovation if it grow at all, makes new words and uses the old in an unfamiliar sense, has no following and is tartly reminded that "it isn’t in the dictionary"—although down to the time of the first lexicographer (Heaven forgive him!) no author ever had used a word that was in the dictionary.

Liberty, n. One of Imagination’s most precious possessions.

Logic, n. The art of thinking and reasoning in strict accordance with the limitations and incapacities of the human misunderstanding. The basic of logic is the syllogism, consisting of a major and a minor premise and a conclusion—thus:

Major Premise: Sixty men can do a piece of work sixty times as quickly as one man.

Minor Premise: One man can dig a post-hole in sixty seconds; therefore—

Conclusion: Sixty men can dig a post-hole in one second.

This may be called the syllogism arithmetical, in which, by combining logic and mathematics, we obtain a double certainty and are twice blessed.

Me, pro. The objectionable case of I. The personal pronoun in English has three cases, the dominative, the objectionable and the oppressive. Each is all three.

Mine, adj. Belonging to me if I can hold or seize it.

Mythology, n. The body of a primitive people’s beliefs concerning its origin, early history, heroes, deities and so forth, as distinguished from the true accounts which it invents later.

Newtonian, adj. Pertaining to a philosophy of the universe, invented by Newton, who discovered hat an apple will fall to the ground, but was unable to say why. His successors and disciples have advanced so far as to be able to say when.

Nonsense, n. The objections that are urged against this excellent dictionary.

Notoriety, n. The fame of one’s competitor for public honors. The kind of renown most accessible and acceptable to mediocrity.

Novel, n. A short story padded. A species of composition bearing the same relation to literature that the panorama bears to art. As it is too long to be read at a sitting the impressions made by it successive parts are successively effaced, as in the panorama. Unity, totality of effect, is impossible; for besides the few pages last read all that is carried in mind is the mere plot of what has gone before.

November, n. The eleventh twelfth of a weariness.

Oblivion, n. The state of condition in which the wicked cease from struggling and the dreary are at rest. Fame’s eternal dumping ground. Cold storage for high hopes. A place where ambitious authors meet their works without pride and their betters without envy.

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

Opportunity, n. A favorable occasion for grasping a disappointment.

Oratory, n. A conspiracy between speech and action to cheat the understanding.

Palmistry, n. The 947th method (according to Mimbleshaw’s classification) of obtaining money by false pretenses.

Passport, n. A document treacherously inflicted upon a citizen going abroad, exposing him as an alien and pointing him out for special reprobation and outrage.

Past, n. That part of Eternity with some small fraction of which we have a slight and regrettable acquaintance. A moving line called the Present parts it from an imaginary period known as the Future. These two grand divisions of Eternity, of which the one is continually effacing the other, are entirely unlike. The one is dark with sorrow and disappointment, the other bright with prosperity and joy.

Patience, n. A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.

Perfection, n. An imaginary state or quality distinguished from the actual by an element known as excellence; an attribute of the critic.

Perseverance, n. A lowly virtue whereby mediocrity achieves an inglorious success.

Philosophy, n. A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.

Plagiarism, n. A literary coincidence compounded of a discreditable priority and an honorable subsequence.

Plagiarize, v. To take the thought or style of another writer whom one has never, never read.

Please, v. To lay the foundation for a superstructure of imposition.

President, n. The leading figure in a small group of men of whom—and of whom only—it is positively known that immense numbers of their countrymen did not want any of them for President.

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.

Quotation, n. The act of repeating erroneously the words of another. The words erroneously repeated.

Radicalism, n. The conservation of to-morrow injected into the affairs of to-day.

Recount, n. In American politics, another throw of the dice, accorded to the player against whom they are loaded.

Religion, n. A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.

Reparation, n. Satisfaction that is made for a wrong and deducted from the satisfaction felt in committing it.

Responsibility, n. A detachable burden easily shifted to the shoulders of God, Fate, Fortune, Luck or one’s neighbor.

Robber, n. A candid man of affairs.

Self-esteem, n. An erroneous appraisement.

Serial n. A literary work, usually a story that is not true, creeping through several issues of a newspaper or magazine. Frequently appended to each instalment is a "synopsis of preceding chapters" for those who have not read them, but a direr need is a synopsis of succeeding chapters for those who do not intend to read them. A synopsis of the entire work would be still better.

Story, n. A narrative, commonly untrue.

Sycophant, n. One who approaches Greatness on his belly so that he may not be commanded to turn and be kicked. He is sometimes an editor.

Telephone, n. An invention of the devil which abrogates some of the advantages of making a disagreeable person keep his distance.

Trichinosis, n. The pig’s reply to proponents of porcophagy.

Twice, adv. Once too often.

Understanding, n. A cerebral secretion that enables one having it to know a house from a forse by the roof on the house. Its nature and laws have been exhaustively expounded by Locke, who rode a house, and Kant, who lived in a horse.

Urbanity, n. The kind of civility that urban observers ascribe to dwellers in all cities by New York. Its commonest expression is heard in the words, "I beg your pardon," and it is not inconsistent with disregard of the rights of others.

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.

Wedding, n. A ceremony at which two persons undertake to become one, one undertakes to become nothing, and nothing undertakes to become supportable.

Whangdepootenawah, n. In the Ojibwa tongue, disaster; an unexpected affliction that strikes hard.

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

X in our alphabet being a needless letter has an added invincibility to the attacks of the spelling reformers, and like them, will doubtless last as long as the language. X is the sacred symbol for ten dollars, and in such words as Xmas, Xn, etc., stands for Christ, not, as is popularly supposed, because it represents a cross, but because the corresponding letter in the Greek alphabet is the initial of His name. If it represented a cross it would stand for St. Andrew, who "testified" upon one of that shape. Words beginning with X are Grecian and will not be defined in this standard English dictionary.

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

Yesterday, n. The infancy of youth, the youth of manhood, the entire past of age.

Youth, n. The period of possibility.

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