The Devil's Dictionary
(Abridged)

By Ambrose Bierce

Edited by Jack Lynch

This is a quickly edited abridgment of Bierce's Devil's Dictionary, highlighting some of the characteristic entries. It's meant for classroom use; don't count on it for anything more.


Author's Preface

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.”

Meantime, too, some of the enterprising humorists of the country had helped themselves to such parts of the work as served their needs, and many of its definitions, anecdotes, phrases and so forth, had become more or less current in popular speech. This explanation is made, not with any pride of priority in trifles, but in simple denial of possible charges of plagiarism, which is no trifle. In merely resuming his own the author hopes to be held guiltless by those to whom the work is addressed — enlightened souls who prefer dry wines to sweet, sense to sentiment, wit to humor and clean English to slang.

A conspicuous, and it is hoped not unpleasant, feature of the book is its abundant illustrative quotations from eminent poets, chief of whom is that learned and ingenious cleric, Father Gassalasca Jape, S.J., whose lines bear his initials. To Father Jape's kindly encouragement and assistance the author of the prose text is greatly indebted.

A.B.


abasement, n. A decent and customary mental attitude in the presence of wealth or power. Peculiarly appropriate in an employee when addressing an employer.

abdomen, n. The temple of the god Stomach, in whose worship, with sacrificial rights, all true men engage. From women this ancient faith commands but a stammering assent. They sometimes minister at the altar in a half-hearted and ineffective way, but true reverence for the one deity that men really adore they know not. If woman had a free hand in the world's marketing the race would become graminivorous.

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.

aboriginies, n. Persons of little worth found cumbering the soil of a newly discovered country. They soon cease to cumber; they fertilize.

absolute, adj. Independent, irresponsible. An absolute monarchy is one in which the sovereign does as he pleases so long as he pleases the assassins. Not many absolute monarchies are left, most of them having been replaced by limited monarchies, where the sovereign's power for evil (and for good) is greatly curtailed, and by republics, which are governed by chance.

absurdity, n. A statement or belief manifestly inconsistent with one's own opinion.

academe, n. An ancient school where morality and philosophy were taught.

academy, n. [from academe] A modern school where football is taught.

accord, n. Harmony.

accordion, n. An instrument in harmony with the sentiments of an assassin.

accuse, v.t. To affirm another's guilt or unworth; most commonly as a justification of ourselves for having wronged him.

acknowledge, v.t. To confess. Acknowledgement of one another's faults is the highest duty imposed by our love of truth.

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.

adherent, n. A follower who has not yet obtained all that he expects to get.

adore, v.t. To venerate expectantly.

affianced, pp. Fitted with an ankle-ring for the ball-and-chain.

african, n. A nigger that votes our way.

air, n. A nutritious substance supplied by a bountiful Providence for the fattening of the poor.

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.

ambition, n. An overmastering desire to be vilified by enemies while living and made ridiculous by friends when dead.

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

appeal, v.t. In law, to put the dice into the box for another throw.

architect, n. One who drafts a plan of your house, and plans a draft of your money.

bacchus, n. A convenient deity invented by the ancients as an excuse for getting drunk.

Is public worship, then, a sin,
    That for devotions paid to Bacchus
The lictors dare to run us in,
    And resolutely thump and whack us?

Jorace

back, n. That part of your friend which it is your privilege to contemplate in your adversity.

backbite, v.t. To speak of a man as you find him when he can't find you.

barometer, n. An ingenious instrument which indicates what kind of weather we are having.

beauty, n. The power by which a woman charms a lover and terrifies a husband.

befriend, v.t. To make an ingrate.

beggar, n. One who has relied on the assistance of his friends.

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.

bore, n. A person who talks when you wish him to listen.

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.

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

brute, n. See husband.

cannon, n. An instrument employed in the rectification of national boundaries.

caviler, n. A critic of our own work.

childhood, n. The period of human life intermediate between the idiocy of infancy and the folly of youth — two removes from the sin of manhood and three from the remorse of age.

christian, n. One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor. One who follows the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.

circus, n. A place where horses, ponies and elephants are permitted to see men, women and children acting the fool.

clairvoyant, n. A person, commonly a woman, who has the power of seeing that which is invisible to her patron, namely, that he is a blockhead.

clergyman, n. A man who undertakes the management of our spiritual affairs as a method of bettering his temporal ones.

confidant, confidante, n. One entrusted by A with the secrets of B, confided by him to C.

congress, n. A body of men who meet to repeal laws.

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 pouted on his lips to revive him. “Pauillac, 1873,” he murmured and died.

conservative, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.

consult, v.i. To seek another's disapproval of a course already decided on.

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

dance, v.i. To leap about to the sound of tittering music, preferably with arms about your neighbor's wife or daughter. There are many kinds of dances, but all those requiring the participation of the two sexes have two characteristics in common: they are conspicuously innocent, and warmly loved by the vicious.

dejeuner, n. The breakfast of an American who has been in Paris. Variously pronounced.

dentist, n. A prestidigitator who, putting metal into your mouth, pulls coins out of your pocket.

destiny, n. A tyrant's authority for crime and fool's excuse for failure.

dictionary, n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. This dictionary, however, is a most useful work.

diplomacy, n. The patriotic art of lying for one's country.

discussion, n. A method of confirming others in their errors.

economy, n. Purchasing the barrel of whiskey that you do not need for the price of the cow that you cannot afford.

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

egotist, n. A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.

entertainment, n. Any kind of amusement whose inroads stop short of death by injection.

evangelist, n. A bearer of good tidings, particularly (in a religious sense) such as assure us of our own salvation and the damnation of our neighbors.

folly, n. That “gift and faculty divine” whose creative and controlling energy inspires Man's mind, guides his actions and adorns his life.

Folly! although Erasmus praised thee once
    In a thick volume, and all authors known,
    If not thy glory yet thy power have shown,
Deign to take homage from thy son who hunts
Through all thy maze his brothers, fool and dunce,
    To mend their lives and to sustain his own,
    However feebly be his arrows thrown,
Howe'er each hide the flying weapons blunts.
All-Father Folly! be it mine to raise,
    With lusty lung, here on his western strand
    With all thine offspring thronged from every land,
Thyself inspiring me, the song of praise.
And if too weak, I'll hire, to help me bawl,
Dick Watson Gilder, gravest of us all.

Aramis Loto Frope

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

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.

gout, n. A physician's name for the rheumatism of a rich patient.

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

habeas corpus. A writ by which a man may be taken out of jail when confined for the wrong crime.

happiness, n. An agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another.

hatred, n. A sentiment appropriate to the occasion of another's superiority.

heathen, n. A benighted creature who has the folly to worship something that he can see and feel.

historian, n. A broad-gauge gossip.

hospitality, n. The virtue which induces us to feed and lodge certain persons who are not in need of food and lodging.

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 the grammarians than it is to the author of this incomparable dictionary. Conception of two myselfs is difficult, but fine. The frank yet graceful use of “I” distinguishes a good writer from a bad; the latter carries it with the manner of a thief trying to cloak his loot.

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

illustrious, adj. Suitably placed for the shafts of malice, envy and detraction.

immigrant, n. An unenlightened person who thinks one country better than another.

impiety, n. Your irreverence toward my deity.

impostor, n. a rival aspirant to public honors.

incumbent, n. A person of the liveliest interest to the outcumbents.

infidel, n. In New York, one who does not believe in the Christian religion; in Constantinople, one who does. (See giaour.) A kind of scoundrel imperfectly reverent of, and niggardly contributory to, divines, ecclesiastics, popes, parsons, canons, monks, mollahs, voodoos, presbyters, hierophants, prelates, obeah-men, abbes, nuns, missionaries, exhorters, deacons, friars, hadjis, high-priests, muezzins, brahmins, medicine-men, confessors, eminences, elders, primates, prebendaries, pilgrims, prophets, imaums, beneficiaries, clerks, vicars-choral, archbishops, bishops, abbots, priors, preachers, padres, abbotesses, caloyers, palmers, curates, patriarchs, bonezs, santons, beadsmen, canonesses, residentiaries, diocesans, deans, subdeans, rural deans, abdals, charm-sellers, archdeacons, hierarchs, class-leaders, incumbents, capitulars, sheiks, talapoins, postulants, scribes, gooroos, precentors, beadles, fakeers, sextons, reverences, revivalists, cenobites, perpetual curates, chaplains, mudjoes, readers, novices, vicars, pastors, rabbis, ulemas, lamas, sacristans, vergers, dervises, lectors, church wardens, cardinals, prioresses, suffragans, acolytes, rectors, cures, sophis, mutifs and pumpums.

ink, n. A villainous compound of tannogallate of iron, gum-arabic and water, chiefly used to facilitate the infection of idiocy and promote intellectual crime. The properties of ink are peculiar and contradictory: it may be used to make reputations and unmake them; to blacken them and to make them white; but it is most generally and acceptably employed as a mortar to bind together the stones of an edifice of fame, and as a whitewash to conceal afterward the rascal quality of the material. There are men called journalists who have established ink baths which some persons pay money to get into, others to get out of. Not infrequently it occurs that a person who has paid to get in pays twice as much to get out.

insurance, n. An ingenious modern game of chance in which the player is permitted to enjoy the comfortable conviction that he is beating the man who keeps the table.

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.

koran, n. A book which the Mohammedans foolishly believe to have been written by divine inspiration, but which Christians know to be a wicked imposture, contradictory to the Holy Scriptures.

labor, n. One of the processes by which A acquires property for B.

language, n. The music with which we charm the serpents guarding another's treasure.

lawful, adj. Compatible with the will of a judge having jurisdiction.

lawyer, n. One skilled in circumvention of the law.

learning, n. The kind of ignorance distinguishing the studious.

litigation, n. A machine which you go into as a pig and come out of as a sausage.

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 posthole in sixty seconds; therefore —

Conclusion: Sixty men can dig a posthole 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.

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

loquacity, n. A disorder which renders the sufferer unable to curb his tongue when you wish to talk.

mad, adj. Affected with a high degree of intellectual independence; not conforming to standards of thought, speech and action derived by the conformants from study of themselves; at odds with the majority; in short, unusual. It is noteworthy that persons are pronounced mad by officials destitute of evidence that themselves are sane. For illustration, this present (and illustrious) lexicographer is no firmer in the faith of his own sanity than is any inmate of any madhouse in the land; yet for aught he knows to the contrary, instead of the lofty occupation that seems to him to be engaging his powers he may really be beating his hands against the window bars of an asylum and declaring himself Noah Webster, to the innocent delight of many thoughtless spectators.

magic, n. An art of converting superstition into coin. There are other arts serving the same high purpose, but the discreet lexicographer does not name them.

magnet, n. Something acted upon by magnetism.

magnetism, n. Something acting upon a magnet.

The two definitions immediately foregoing are condensed from the works of one thousand eminent scientists, who have illuminated the subject with a great white light, to the inexpressible advancement of human knowledge.

marriage, n. The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two.

mausoleum, n. The final and funniest folly of the rich.

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.

metropolis, n. A stronghold of provincialism.

monday, n. In Christian countries, the day after the baseball game.

more, adj. The comparative degree of too much.

mulatto, n. A child of two races, ashamed of both.

negro, n. The pièce de resistance in the American political problem. Representing him by the letter n, the Republicans begin to build their equation thus: “Let n = the white man.” This, however, appears to give an unsatisfactory solution.

neighbor, n. One whom we are commanded to love as ourselves, and who does all he knows how to make us disobedient.

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

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 its 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. To the romance the novel is what photography is to painting. Its distinguishing principle, probability, corresponds to the literal actuality of the photograph and puts it distinctly into the category of reporting; whereas the free wing of the romancer enables him to mount to such altitudes of imagination as he may be fitted to attain; and the first three essentials of the literary art are imagination, imagination and imagination. The art of writing novels, such as it was, is long dead everywhere except in Russia, where it is new. Peace to its ashes — some of which have a large sale.

november, n. The eleventh twelfth of a weariness.

occident, n. The part of the world lying west (or east) of the Orient. It is largely inhabited by Christians, a powerful subtribe of the Hypocrites, whose principal industries are murder and cheating, which they are pleased to call “war” and “commerce.” These, also, are the principal industries of the Orient.

ocean, n. A body of water occupying about two-thirds of a world made for man — who has no gills.

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

optimism, n. The doctrine, or belief, that everything is beautiful, including what is ugly, everything good, especially the bad, and everything right that is wrong. It is held with greatest tenacity by those most accustomed to the mischance of falling into adversity, and is most acceptably expounded with the grin that apes a smile. Being a blind faith, it is inaccessible to the light of disproof — an intellectual disorder, yielding to no treatment but death. It is hereditary, but fortunately not contagious.

outdo, v.t. To make an enemy.

out-of-doors, n. That part of one's environment upon which no government has been able to collect taxes. Chiefly useful to inspire poets.

overeat, v. To dine.

pantheism, n. The doctrine that everything is God, in contradistinction to the doctrine that God is everything.

patriotism, n. Combustible rubbish read to the torch of any one ambitious to illuminate his name.

In Dr. Johnson's famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer I beg to submit that it is the first.

pedestrian, n. The variable (an audible) part of the roadway for an automobile.

philanthropist, n. A rich (and usually bald) old gentleman who has trained himself to grin while his conscience is picking his pocket.

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

phonograph, n. An irritating toy that restores life to dead noises.

piety, n. Reverence for the Supreme Being, based upon His supposed resemblance to man.

The pig is taught by sermons and epistles
To think the God of Swine has snout and bristles.

Judibras

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.

plow, n. An implement that cries aloud for hands accustomed to the pen.

politeness, n. The most acceptable hypocrisy.

positive, adj. Mistaken at the top of one's voice.

pray, v. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.

present, n. That part of eternity dividing the domain of disappointment from the realm of hope.

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.

radicalism, n. The conservatism of to-morrow injected into the affairs of to-day.

really, adv. Apparently.

recollect, v. To recall with additions something not previously known.

red-skin, n. A North American Indian, whose skin is not red — at least not on the outside.

resident, adj. Unable to leave.

resolute, adj. Obstinate in a course that we approve.

rubbish, n. Worthless matter, such as the religions, philosophies, literatures, arts and sciences of the tribes infesting the regions lying due south from Boreaplas.

ruin, v. To destroy. Specifically, to destroy a maid's belief in the virtue of maids.

rum, n. Generically, fiery liquors that produce madness in total abstainers.

saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited.

satire, n. An obsolete kind of literary composition in which the vices and follies of the author's enemies were expounded with imperfect tenderness. In this country satire never had more than a sickly and uncertain existence, for the soul of it is wit, wherein we are dolefully deficient, the humor that we mistake for it, like all humor, being tolerant and sympathetic. Moreover, although Americans are “endowed by their Creator” with abundant vice and folly, it is not generally known that these are reprehensible qualities, wherefore the satirist is popularly regarded as a soul-spirited knave, and his ever victim's outcry for codefendants evokes a national assent.

scribbler, n. A professional writer whose views are antagonistic to one's own.

scriptures, n. The sacred books of our holy religion, as distinguished from the false and profane writings on which all other faiths are based.

self-esteem, n. An erroneous appraisement.

self-evident, adj. Evident to one's self and to nobody else.

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

un-american, adj. Wicked, intolerable, heathenish.

unitarian, n. One who denies the divinity of a Trinitarian.

white, adj. and n. Black.

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