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Literature / The Devil's Dictionary

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There are four kinds of homicide: felonious, excusable, justifiable, and praiseworthy.
— "Homicide"

A hilarious collection of broken Aesops, family unfriendly Aesops, and spoof definitions by American satirist Ambrose Bierce. They originally ran a few a week in newspapers, under the title The Cynic's Word Book, but were eventually compiled into a book that's now free from copyright. Bierce had nothing but contempt for the mores and customs of his fellow man, and his book is full of ungentle Deconstruction of what people secretly mean when they speak.

A perennial favorite of atheists, cynics, denizens of Encyclopedia Dramatica, and good old-fashioned depressed people, it's considered by some to be a bona fide classic of American literature, although it isn't very well known in the mainstream and never achieved the notoriety of similar works, such as the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft. In a nutshell, The Devil's Dictionary is a dictionary that claims to present the "true" definitions of words, or rather the concepts said words supposedly represent, free of the superficial and hypocritical connotations they've gained throughout their years in the zeitgeist. As expected of Bitter Bierce, the vast majority of these paint even universally benevolent concepts (like "friendship") in a very grim light, often accompanied by poems or rhymes written by Bierce under a series of bizarre and cryptic aliases. Bierce had fierce hatred for mediocrity, common morality and religion, and his frequent jabs caused a great deal of controversy.


Many definitions came with quotes, real or fabricated, illustrating the folly usually accompanying the use of the word. He also frequently employed puns, some to truly awful effect. Some examples:

An instrument in harmony with the sentiments of an assassin.

Our polite recognition of another's resemblance to ourselves.

Such an adjustment of conflicting interests as gives each adversary the satisfaction of thinking he has got what he ought not to have, and is deprived of nothing except what was justly his due.

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

A politician of the seas.

An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.

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

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, omniscience, 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 was 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.

A ship big enough to carry two in good weather, but only one in foul.

A speech by an opponent, who is known as an harrangue-outang.

In Christian countries, the day after the baseball game.

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.

Combustible rubbish ready 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.

TWICE, adv.
Once too often.

According to its author, it is intended to be used as a school textbook. A copy can be found online here. Or here, in dictd-compatible dictionary format.

Tropes include:

  • Absurdly Sharp Blade: The entry for Scimetar recounts a Japanese executioner whose blade is so sharp the condemned man keeps his head until he blows his nose. When this fails to happen, he realizes he must have cut his own head off without realizing it. He promptly pulls it off in penance.
  • Awful Wedded Life: But of course.
    AFFIANCED, pp. Fitted with an ankle-ring for the ball-and-chain.
    BRIDE, n. A woman with a fine prospect of happiness behind her.
    HUSBAND, n. One who, having dined, is charged with the care of the plate.
    MARRIAGE, n. The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two.
    WEDDING, n. A ceremony at which two persons undertake to become one, one undertakes to become nothing, and nothing undertakes to become supportable.
    YOKE, n. An implement, madam, to whose Latin name, jugum, we owe one of the most illuminating words in our language — a word that defines the matrimonial situation with precision, point and poignancy. A thousand apologies for withholding it.
  • Brutal Honesty: Bierce wrote the dictionary as a Juvenalian satire on all the hypocrisies of the civilised world, and does not pull any punches.
  • Black Comedy: On show throughout. See, for example, the entry on "homicide".
  • Comedic Sociopathy
    Happiness, n. An agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another.
  • Conspiracy Theorist: Bierce satirizes some views of these with the entry on "Freemasons":
    An order with secret rites, grotesque ceremonies and fantastic costumes, which, originating in the reign of Charles II, among working artisans of London, has been joined successively by the dead of past centuries in unbroken retrogression until now it embraces all the generations of man on the hither side of Adam and is drumming up distinguished recruits among the pre-Creational inhabitants of Chaos and Formless Void. The order was founded at different times by Charlemagne, Julius Caesar, Cyrus, Solomon, Zoroaster, Confucius, Thothmes, and Buddha. Its emblems and symbols have been found in the Catacombs of Paris and Rome, on the stones of the Parthenon and the Chinese Great Wall, among the temples of Karnak and Palmyra and in the Egyptian Pyramids — always by a Freemason.
  • Corrupt Church
    Clergyman, n. A man who undertakes the management of our spiritual affairs as a method of bettering his temporal ones.
  • Darker and Edgier: Not a trope you expect to see applied to dictionaries, but there it is.
  • Depraved Dentist: Less depraved than crooked.
    Dentist, n. A prestidigitator who, putting metal into your mouth, pulls coins out of your pocket.
  • Everything's Better with Monkeys: From "Story":
    General H.H. Wotherspoon, president of the Army War College, has a pet rib-nosed baboon, an animal of uncommon intelligence but imperfectly beautiful. Returning to his apartment one evening, the General was surprised and pained to find Adam (for so the creature is named, the general being a Darwinian) sitting up for him and wearing his master's best uniform coat, epaulettes and all.
    "You confounded remote ancestor!" thundered the great strategist, "what do you mean by being out of bed after naps? — and with my coat on!"
    Adam rose and with a reproachful look got down on all fours in the manner of his kind and, scuffling across the room to a table, returned with a visiting-card: General Barry had called and, judging by an empty champagne bottle and several cigar-stumps, had been hospitably entertained while waiting. The general apologized to his faithful progenitor and retired. The next day he met General Barry, who said:
    "Spoon, old man, when leaving you last evening I forgot to ask you about those excellent cigars. Where did you get them?"
    General Wotherspoon did not deign to reply, but walked away.
    "Pardon me, please," said Barry, moving after him; "I was joking of course. Why, I knew it was not you before I had been in the room fifteen minutes."
  • Evil Chancellor: Yes, here, of all places. One appears in the poem after the definition for "Redundant."
    The Sultan said, "There's evidence abundant
    To prove this unbelieving dog redundant"
    To which the Grand Vizier, with mien impressive,
    Replied "His head, at least, appears excessive."
  • Family-Unfriendly Aesop: Very deliberately.
  • Feghoot:
    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.
  • Fun with Acronyms:
    R.I.P.: A careless abbreviation of requiescat in pace, attesting to indolent goodwill to the dead. According to the learned Dr. Drigge, however, the letters originally meant nothing more than reductus in pulvis.
  • Gargle Blaster:
    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.
  • Horny Devils:
    Incubus, n.: One of a race of highly improper demons who, though probably not wholly extinct, may be said to have seen their best nights. For a complete account of incubi and succubi, including incubae and succubae, see the Liber Demonorum of Protassus (Paris, 1328), which contains much curious information that would be out of place in a dictionary intended as a text-book for the public schools.
    Victor Hugo relates that in the Channel Islands Satan himself — tempted more than elsewhere by the beauty of the women, doubtless — sometimes plays at incubus, greatly to the inconvenience and alarm of the good dames who wish to be loyal to their marriage vows, generally speaking. A certain lady applied to the parish priest to learn how they might, in the dark, distinguish the hardy intruder from their husbands. The holy man said they must feel his brow for horns; but Hugo is ungallant enough to hint a doubt of the efficacy of the test.
  • Humans Are Morons
    Circus, n. A place where horses, ponies and elephants are permitted to see men, women and children acting the fool.
    Logic, n. The art of thinking and reasoning in strict accordance with the limitations and incapacities of the human misunderstanding.
  • Hurricane of Puns: Many, e.g. the above definition of "harangue".
  • Hypocrite: Many of the entries invoke this, such as the one for "Christian":
    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 so long as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice:
    Impale, v.t. In popular usage, to pierce with any weapon which remains fixed in the wound. This, however, is inaccurate; to impale is, properly, to put to death by thrusting an upright sharp stake into the body, the victim being left in a sitting position. This was a common mode of punishment among many of the nations of antiquity, and is still in high favor in China and other parts of Asia. Down to the beginning of the fifteenth century it was widely employed in "churching" heretics and schismatics. Wolecraft calls it the "stoole of repentynge," and among the common people it was jocularly known as "riding the one legged horse." Ludwig Salzmann informs us that in Thibet impalement is considered the most appropriate punishment for crimes against religion; and although in China it is sometimes awarded for secular offences, it is most frequently adjudged in cases of sacrilege. To the person in actual experience of impalement it must be a matter of minor importance by what kind of civil or religious dissent he was made acquainted with its discomforts; but doubtless he would feel a certain satisfaction if able to contemplate himself in the character of a weather-cock on the spire of the True Church.
  • Kick the Dog
    Cat, n. A soft, indestructible automaton provided by nature to be kicked when things go wrong in the domestic circle.
  • Language Equals Thought:
    Belladonna, n. In Italian a beautiful lady; in English a deadly poison. A striking example of the essential identity of the two tongues.
  • Literary Agent Hypothesis: Most of the poetry is quite self-evidently written by Bierce, but he gives fake names for its "writers".
  • Man in a Kilt:
    Kilt, n. A costume sometimes worn by Scotchmen in America and Americans in Scotland.
  • Matzo Fever: Bierce evidently had it, considering the following definition:
    Hebrew, n. A male Jew, as distinguished from the Shebrew, an altogether superior creation.
  • My Friends... and Zoidberg:
    • Man "multiplies with such insistent rapidity as to infest the whole habitable earth and Canada".
    • From the entry on Trial:
    In our day the accused is usually a human being, or a socialist, but in medieval times, animals, fishes, reptiles and insects were brought to trial.
  • Never Say "Die"
    Die, n. The singular of "dice". We seldom hear the word, because there is a prohibitory proverb, "Never say die". At long intervals, however, some one says: "The die is cast", which is not true, for it is cut. [...]
  • Overly Long Gag: The definition of infidel clearly follows this trope.
  • Parody: Of the dictionary of all things.
  • Police Brutality:
    Riot, n. A popular entertainment given to the military by innocent bystanders.
  • Remonstrating with a Gun
    Admonition, n. Gentle reproof, as with a meat-axe. Friendly warning.
  • Rhymes on a Dime: Most of his poems.
    Rime, n. Agreeing sounds in the terminals of verse, mostly bad. The verses themselves, as distinguished from prose, mostly dull. Usually (and wickedly) spelled "rhyme."
  • Sarcasm Failure: The comment for Riches:
    Riches, n.
    A gift from Heaven signifying, "This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased."
    The reward of toil and virtue.
    The savings of many in the hands of one.
    To these excellent definitions the inspired lexicographer feels that he can add nothing of value.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!
    Impunity, n. Wealth.
  • Shrug of God
    Hug, v. very a. To——to——What the devil does it mean, anyhow?
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Need we even say which side it falls on? Also incredible is the sheer number of Take Thats, satirical jabs, and general fuck-yous it aims at the other end.
  • Take a Third Option: Whenever confronted with two opposing worldviews (atheism and Christianity, communism and capitalism, rationalism and mysticism) Bierce typically heaped scorn on both.
  • Take That!: At Romanticism in general, but especially vicious against concepts of love and faith. For example, this very specific target:
    Incompossible, n. Unable to exist if something else exists. Two things are incompossible when the world of being has scope enough for one of them, but not enough for both — as Walt Whitman's poetry and God's mercy to man. [...]
  • Take That, Critics!:
    Imbecility, n. A kind of divine inspiration, or sacred fire affecting censorious critics of this dictionary.
  • Ungrateful Bastard:
    Ingrate, , n. One who receives a benefit from another, or is otherwise an object of charity.
    "All men are ingrates," sneered the cynic. "Nay,"
    The good philanthropist replied;
    "I did great service to a man one day
    Who never since has cursed me to repay,
    Nor vilified."

    "Ho!" cried the cynic, "lead me to him straight —
    With veneration I am overcome,
    And fain would have his blessing." "Sad your fate —
    He cannot bless you, for I grieve to state
    This man is dumb."
  • White Man's Burden: Mocked with "aboriginals".
    Persons of little worth found cumbering the soil of a newly discovered country. They soon cease to cumber; they fertilize.


Example of: