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The Devil's Dictionary

by Ambrose Bierce

After finishing this book in March of 2022, I wrote,

 

"This book is both fun, often containing witty definitions that shine a light on the deeper truth of the matter, putting regular dictionaries to shame."

I highlighted in red a few of the definitions I especially liked.

 

My clippings below collapse a 155-page book into 11 pages, measured by using 12-point type in Microsoft Word." 

See all my book recommendations.  

Here are the selections I made:

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

 

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.

 

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.

 

ACCIDENT, n. An inevitable occurrence due to the action of immutable natural laws.

 

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.

 

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

 

ALONE, adj. In bad company.

 

AMNESTY, n. The state's magnanimity to those offenders whom it would be too expensive to punish.

 

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

 

ARCHBISHOP, n. An ecclesiastical dignitary one point holier than a bishop.

 

ARDOR, n. The quality that distinguishes love without knowledge.

 

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

 

BATTLE, n. A method of untying with the teeth of a political knot that would not yield to the tongue.

 

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

 

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.

 

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.

 

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

 

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

 

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.

 

CHRISTIAN, n. One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor.

 

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.

 

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

 

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

 

CONTROVERSY, n. A battle in which spittle or ink replaces the injurious cannon-ball and the inconsiderate bayonet.

 

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

 

DECALOGUE, n. A series of commandments, ten in number—just enough to permit an intelligent selection for observance, but not enough to embarrass the choice. Following is the revised edition of the Decalogue, calculated for this meridian. Thou shalt no God but me adore: 'Twere too expensive to have more. No images nor idols make For Robert Ingersoll to break. Take not God's name in vain; select A time when it will have effect. Work not on Sabbath days at all, But go to see the teams play ball. Honor thy parents. That creates For life insurance lower rates. Kill not, abet not those who kill; Thou shalt not pay thy butcher's bill. Kiss not thy neighbor's wife, unless Thine own thy neighbor doth caress Don't steal; thou'lt never thus compete Successfully in business. Cheat. Bear not false witness—that is low— But "hear 'tis rumored so and so." Cover thou naught that thou hast not By hook or crook, or somehow, got.

 

DELUGE, n. A notable first experiment in baptism which washed away the sins (and sinners) of the world.

 

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

 

DISOBEDIENCE, n. The silver lining to the cloud of servitude.

 

DOG, n. A kind of additional or subsidiary Deity designed to catch the overflow and surplus of the world's worship. This Divine Being in some of his smaller and silkier incarnations takes, in the affection of Woman, the place to which there is no human male aspirant. The Dog is a survival—an anachronism. He toils not, neither does he spin, yet Solomon in all his glory never lay upon a door-mat all day long, sun-soaked and fly-fed and fat, while his master worked for the means wherewith to purchase the idle wag of the Solomonic tail, seasoned with a look of tolerant recognition.

 

EDIBLE, adj. Good to eat, and wholesome to digest, as a worm to a toad, a toad to a snake, a snake to a pig, a pig to a man, and a man to a worm.

 

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

 

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.

 

ESOTERIC, adj. Very particularly abstruse and consummately occult. The ancient philosophies were of two kinds,—exoteric, those that the philosophers themselves could partly understand, and esoteric, those that nobody could understand. It is the latter that have most profoundly affected modern thought and found greatest acceptance in our time.

 

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.

 

EXECUTIVE, n. An officer of the Government, whose duty it is to enforce the wishes of the legislative power until such time as the judicial department shall be pleased to pronounce them invalid and of no effect.

 

FAITH, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.

 

FREEDOM, n. Exemption from the stress of authority in a beggarly half dozen of restraint's infinite multitude of methods. A political condition that every nation supposes itself to enjoy in virtual monopoly. Liberty. The distinction between freedom and liberty is not accurately known; naturalists have never been able to find a living specimen of either.

 

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

 

GUNPOWDER, n. An agency employed by civilized nations for the settlement of disputes which might become troublesome if left unadjusted. By most writers the invention of gunpowder is ascribed to the Chinese, but not upon very convincing evidence. Milton says it was invented by the devil to dispel angels with, and this opinion seems to derive some support from the scarcity of angels.

 

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

 

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

 

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 homocide: 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 advantage of the lawyers.

 

HOPE, n. Desire and expectation rolled into one.

 

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

 

HOUSE, n. A hollow edifice erected for the habitation of man, rat, mouse, beetle, cockroach, fly, mosquito, flea, bacillus and microbe.

 

IDLENESS, n. A model farm where the devil experiments with seeds of new sins and promotes the growth of staple vices.

 

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

 

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

 

IMMORAL, adj. Inexpedient. Whatever in the long run and with regard to the greater number of instances men find to be generally inexpedient comes to be considered wrong, wicked, immoral. If man's notions of right and wrong have any other basis than this of expediency; if they originated, or could have originated, in any other way; if actions have in themselves a moral character apart from, and nowise dependent on, their consequences—then all philosophy is a lie and reason a disorder of the mind.

 

IMPENITENCE, n. A state of mind intermediate in point of time between sin and punishment.

 

IMPIETY, n. Your irreverence toward my deity.

 

IMPROVIDENCE, n. Provision for the needs of to-day from the revenues of to-morrow.

 

INADMISSIBLE, adj. Not competent to be considered. Said of certain kinds of testimony which juries are supposed to be unfit to be entrusted with, and which judges, therefore, rule out, even of proceedings before themselves alone. Hearsay evidence is inadmissible because the person quoted was unsworn and is not before the court for examination; yet most momentous actions, military, political, commercial and of every other kind, are daily undertaken on hearsay evidence. There is no religion in the world that has any other basis than hearsay evidence. Revelation is hearsay evidence; that the Scriptures are the word of God we have only the testimony of men long dead whose identity is not clearly established and who are not known to have been sworn in any sense. Under the rules of evidence as they now exist in this country, no single assertion in the Bible has in its support any evidence admissible in a court of law. It cannot be proved that the battle of Blenheim ever was fought, that there was such as person as Julius Caesar, such an empire as Assyria.

 

INEXPEDIENT, adj. Not calculated to advance one's interests.

 

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

 

INFIDEL, n. In New York, one who does not believe in the Christian religion; in Constantinople, one who does.

 

INFLUENCE, n. In politics, a visionary quo given in exchange for a substantial quid.

 

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.

 

INSURRECTION, n. An unsuccessful revolution. Disaffection's failure to substitute misrule for bad government.

 

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

 

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

 

KILT, n. A costume sometimes worn by Scotchmen in America and Americans in Scotland.

 

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.

 

LIFE, n. A spiritual pickle preserving the body from decay. We live in daily apprehension of its loss; yet when lost it is not missed. The question, "Is life worth living?" has been much discussed; particularly by those who think it is not, many of whom have written at great length in support of their view and by careful observance of the laws of health enjoyed for long terms of years the honors of successful controversy.

 

LIMB, n. The branch of a tree or the leg of an American woman.

 

LITIGANT, n. A person about to give up his skin for the hope of retaining his bones. LITIGATION, n. A machine which you go into as a pig and come out of as a sausage.

 

LOGOMACHY, n. A war in which the weapons are words and the wounds punctures in the swim-bladder of self-esteem—a kind of contest in which, the vanquished being unconscious of defeat, the victor is denied the reward of success.

 

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.

 

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

 

LUNARIAN, n. An inhabitant of the moon, as distinguished from Lunatic, one whom the moon inhabits.

 

MACHINATION, n. The method employed by one's opponents in baffling one's open and honorable efforts to do the right thing.

 

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.

 

MALE, n. A member of the unconsidered, or negligible sex. The male of the human race is commonly known (to the female) as Mere Man. The genus has two varieties: good providers and bad providers.

 

MALTHUSIAN, adj. Pertaining to Malthus and his doctrines. Malthus believed in artificially limiting population, but found that it could not be done by talking. One of the most practical exponents of the Malthusian idea was Herod of Judea, though all the famous soldiers have been of the same way of thinking.

 

MAMMALIA, n.pl. A family of vertebrate animals whose females in a state of nature suckle their young, but when civilized and enlightened put them out to nurse, or use the bottle.

 

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.

 

MERCHANT, n. One engaged in a commercial pursuit. A commercial pursuit is one in which the thing pursued is a dollar.

 

MIND, n. A mysterious form of matter secreted by the brain. Its chief activity consists in the endeavor to ascertain its own nature, the futility of the attempt being due to the fact that it has nothing but itself to know itself with.

 

MISDEMEANOR, n. An infraction of the law having less dignity than a felony and constituting no claim to admittance into the best criminal society.

 

MISFORTUNE, n. The kind of fortune that never misses.

 

MISS, n. The title with which we brand unmarried women to indicate that they are in the market. Miss, Missis (Mrs.) and Mister (Mr.) are the three most distinctly disagreeable words in the language, in sound and sense. Two are corruptions of Mistress, the other of Master. In the general abolition of social titles in this our country they miraculously escaped to plague us. If we must have them let us be consistent and give one to the unmarried man. I venture to suggest Mush, abbreviated to Mh.

 

MONEY, n. A blessing that is of no advantage to us excepting when we part with it. An evidence of culture and a passport to polite society. Supportable property.

 

MOUSE, n. An animal which strews its path with fainting women. As in Rome Christians were thrown to the lions, so centuries earlier in Otumwee, the most ancient and famous city of the world, female heretics were thrown to the mice.

 

NOUMENON, n. That which exists, as distinguished from that which merely seems to exist, the latter being a phenomenon. The noumenon is a bit difficult to locate; it can be apprehended only be a process of reasoning—which is a phenomenon. Nevertheless, the discovery and exposition of noumena offer a rich field for what Lewes calls "the endless variety and excitement of philosophic thought." Hurrah (therefore) for the noumenon!

 

OPPOSITION, n. In politics the party that prevents the Government from running amuck by hamstringing it.

 

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.

 

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

 

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. The Past is the region of sobs, the Future is the realm of song. In the one crouches Memory, clad in sackcloth and ashes, mumbling penitential prayer; in the sunshine of the other Hope flies with a free wing, beckoning to temples of success and bowers of ease. Yet the Past is the Future of yesterday, the Future is the Past of to-morrow. They are one—the knowledge and the dream.

 

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

 

PERFECTION, n. An imaginary state of 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.

 

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

 

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

 

POLITENESS, n. The most acceptable hypocrisy.

 

PORTUGUESE, n.pl. A species of geese indigenous to Portugal. They are mostly without feathers and imperfectly edible, even when stuffed with garlic.

 

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

 

PREFERENCE, n. A sentiment, or frame of mind, induced by the erroneous belief that one thing is better than another. An ancient philosopher, expounding his conviction that life is no better than death, was asked by a disciple why, then, he did not die. "Because," he replied, "death is no better than life."

 

PREJUDICE, n. A vagrant opinion without visible means of support.

 

PROJECTILE, n. The final arbiter in international disputes. Formerly these disputes were settled by physical contact of the disputants, with such simple arguments as the rudimentary logic of the times could supply—the sword, the spear, and so forth. With the growth of prudence in military affairs the projectile came more and more into favor, and is now held in high esteem by the most courageous. Its capital defect is that it requires personal attendance at the point of propulsion.

 

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

 

REASON, v.i. To weight probabilities in the scales of desire.

 

REDEMPTION, n. Deliverance of sinners from the penalty of their sin, through their murder of the deity against whom they sinned. The doctrine of Redemption is the fundamental mystery of our holy religion, and whoso believeth in it shall not perish, but have everlasting life in which to try to understand it.

 

REPARTEE, n. Prudent insult in retort. Practiced by gentlemen with a constitutional aversion to violence, but a strong disposition to offend.

 

REPENTANCE, n. The faithful attendant and follower of Punishment. It is usually manifest in a degree of reformation that is not inconsistent with continuity of sin.

 

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

 

RESPONSIBILITY, n. A detachable burden easily shifted to the shoulders of God, Fate, Fortune, Luck or one's neighbor. In the days of astrology it was customary to unload it upon a star.

 

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. Revolutions are usually accompanied by a considerable effusion of blood, but are accounted worth it—this appraisement being made by beneficiaries whose blood had not the mischance to be shed.

 

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

 

SELFISH, adj. Devoid of consideration for the selfishness of others.

 

SOUL, n. A spiritual entity concerning which there hath been brave disputation. Plato held that those souls which in a previous state of existence (antedating Athens) had obtained the clearest glimpses of eternal truth entered into the bodies of persons who became philosophers. Plato himself was a philosopher. The souls that had least contemplated divine truth animated the bodies of usurpers and despots.

 

SUFFRAGE, n. Expression of opinion by means of a ballot. The right of suffrage (which is held to be both a privilege and a duty) means, as commonly interpreted, the right to vote for the man of another man's choice, and is highly prized. Refusal to do so has the bad name of "incivism." The incivilian, however, cannot be properly arraigned for his crime, for there is no legitimate accuser. If the accuser is himself guilty he has no standing in the court of opinion; if not, he profits by the crime, for A's abstention from voting gives greater weight to the vote of B. By female suffrage is meant the right of a woman to vote as some man tells her to. It is based on female responsibility, which is somewhat limited. The woman most eager to jump out of her petticoat to assert her rights is first to jump back into it when threatened with a switching for misusing them.

 

TARIFF, n. A scale of taxes on imports, designed to protect the domestic producer against the greed of his consumer.

 

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

 

VALOR, n. A soldierly compound of vanity, duty and the gambler's hope.

 

VIRTUES, n.pl. Certain abstentions.

 

W (double U) has, of all the letters in our alphabet, the only cumbrous name, the names of the others being monosyllabic.

 

WEATHER, n. The climate of the hour. A permanent topic of conversation among persons whom it does not interest, but who have inherited the tendency to chatter about it from naked arboreal ancestors whom it keenly concerned.

 

WRATH, n. Anger of a superior quality and degree, appropriate to exalted characters and momentous occasions; as, "the wrath of God," "the day of wrath," etc. Amongst the ancients the wrath of kings was deemed sacred, for it could usually command the agency of some god for its fit manifestation, as could also that of a priest.

 

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

 

ZEUS, n. The chief of Grecian gods, adored by the Romans as Jupiter and by the modern Americans as God, Gold, Mob and Dog.

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