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Literature / The Devil's Dictionary

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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.

A hilarious collection of broken Aesops, Aesops with Unfortunate Implications, 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 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.
  • Admiration Tropes:
    Admiration, n. Our polite recognition of another’s resemblance to ourselves.
  • Aging Tropes:
    Age, n. That period of life in which we compensate for the vices that we still cherish by reviling those that we have no longer the enterprise to commit.
  • Ain't Too Proud to Beg:
    Beg, n. To ask for something with an earnestness proportioned to the belief that it will not be given.
  • The All-Concealing "I": Bierce states, "The frank yet graceful use of ‘I’ distinguishes a good writer from a bad; the latter carries with it the manner of a thief trying to cloak his loot."
  • "Ass" in Ambassador: May possibly apply since the consul was unable to win over voters.
    Consul, n. In American politics, a person who having failed to secure an office from the people is given one by the Administration on the condition that he leave the country.
  • Auction:
    Auctioneer, n. The man who proclaims with a hammer that he has picked a pocket with his tongue.
  • 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.
  • Babies, Babies Everywhere:
    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.
  • "Better if Not Born" Plot: These stories begin when The Protagonist adopts Bierce's definition of birth- "the first and direst of all disasters."
  • Blind Obedience: Bierce employs a poem to explain "Allegiance":
    This thing, Allegiance, as I suppose
    Is a ring fitted in the subject’s nosed
    Whereby the organ is kept rightly pointed
    To smell the sweetness of the Lord’s anointed
  • Blue Blood:
    Aristocracy, n. Government by the best men. (In this sense the word is obsolete; so is that kind of government.) Fellows that wear downy hats and clean shirts – guilty of education and suspected of bank accounts.
  • 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".
  • Capitalism Is Bad:
    Commerce, n. A kind of transaction in which A plunders B the goods of C, and for compensation B picks the pocket of D of money belonging to E.
  • Caustic Critic: "A person who boasts himself hard to please because nobody tries to please him."
  • Comedic Sociopathy: A major theme throughout Bierce’s definitions
    Comfort, n. A state of mind produced by contemplation of another's uneasiness.
    Consolation, n. The knowledge that a better man is more unfortunate than yourself.
    Happiness, n. An agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another.
  • The Confidant: "One entrusted by A with the secrets of B, confided by him to C."
  • 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.
  • The Cynic: "A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be. Hence the custom among the Scythians of plucking out a cynic’s eyes to improve his vision."
  • Darker and Edgier: Not a trope you expect to see applied to dictionaries, but there it is.
  • Decisive Battle:
    Battle, n. A method of untying with the teeth of a political knot that would not yield to the tongue.
  • Democracy Is Bad: Or, more aptly, voters are morons.
    VOTE, n. The instrument and symbol of a freeman's power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country.
  • Depraved Dentist: Less depraved than crooked.
    Dentist, n. A prestidigitator who, putting metal into your mouth, pulls coins out of your pocket.
  • Dirty Coward: "One who in a perilous emergency thinks with his legs."
  • Doing In the Wizard: He defines a "halo" as an optical illusion caused by moisture in the air, similar to a rainbow.
  • Duck Season, Rabbit Season: The poem describing Controversy includes the employment of this trope:
    So seek your adversary to engage
    That on himself he shall exhaust his rage
    And, like a snake that’s fastened to the ground,
    With his own fangs inflict the fatal wound.
    You ask me how this miracle is done?
    Adopt his own opinions, one by one,
    And taunt him to refute them; in his wrath
    He’ll sweep them away pitilessly from his path.
    Advance then gently all you wish to prove
    Each proposition prefaced with, “As you’ve
    So well remarked,” or, “As you wisely say,
    And I cannot dispute,” or “By the way,
    This view of it which, better far expressed,
    Runs through your argument.” Then leave the rest
    To him, secure that he’ll perform his trust
    And prove your views intelligent and just.
  • 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."
  • Evil Debt Collector:
    Creditor, n. One of a tribe of savages dwelling beyond the Financial Straits and dreaded for their desolating incursions.
    Debt, n. An ingenious substitute for the chain and whip of the slave-driver.
  • Evil Lawyer Joke:
    Accomplice, n. One associated with another in a crime, having guilty knowledge and complicity, as an attorney who defends a criminal, knowing him guilty. This view of the attorney's position in the matter has not hitherto commanded the assent of attorneys, no one having offered them a fee for assenting.
    Lawyer, n. One skilled in circumvention of the law.
    Liar, n. A lawyer with a roving commission.
  • Exact Eavesdropping:
    Eavesdrop, v.i. Secretly to overhear a catalogue of crimes and vices of another or yourself.
  • Fair-Weather Friend:
    Friendship, n. A ship big enough to carry two in good weather, but only one in foul.
  • 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.
  • From the Latin "Intro Ducere": Bierce makes a few jokes of this type:
    • "Tedium" is alleged to derive "from a very obvious source—the first words of the ancient Latin hymn Te Deum Laudamus. In this apparently natural derivation there is something that saddens."
    • "Tadpole," as mentioned in the "Leviathan" entry, is implied to be derived from its Latin name, Thaddeus polandensis (Thaddeus of Poland).
  • 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 pulvisnote 
  • 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.
  • Grave Robbing:
    Body-Snatcher, n. A robber of grave-worms. One who supplies the young physicians with that which the old physicians have supplied the undertaker. The hyena.
  • The Great Flood:
    Deluge, n. A notable first experiment in baptism which washed away the sins (and sinners) of the world.
  • Gunboat Diplomacy:
    Cannon, n. An instrument employed in the rectification of national boundaries.
  • 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.
  • Humans Through Alien Eyes: The book has a character called the Lunarian encounter a human and ask innocent questions about the American system of government to show what Bierce considers to be absurdities in that system.
  • 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.
    • Then of course there is the definition itself:
    Hypocrite, n. One who, profession [sic] virtues that he does not respect secures the advantage of seeming to be what he despises.
  • I'm a Humanitarian:
    Cannibal, n. A gastronome of the old school who preserves the simple tastes and adheres to the natural diet of the pre-pork period.
  • 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.
  • It's All About Me: When introducing the letter "I":
    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.
  • Jesus Was Way Cool: Based on his definition of Christian and the poem attached, Bierce seemed to have this view of Jesus, despite his antipathy towards Christianity:
    Christian, n. One who follows the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.
    Then I saw gazing thoughtfully below
    With tranquil face, upon that holy show
    A tall, spare figure in a robe of white,
    Whose eyes diffused a melancholy light
    “God keep you, stranger,” I exclaimed. “You are
    No doubt (your habit shows it) from afar;
    And I yet entertain the hope that you,
    Like these good people are a Christian too.”
    He raised his eyes and with a look so stern
    It made me with a thousand blushes burn
    Replied – his manner with disdain was spiced:
    "What! I a Christian? No, indeed! I'm Christ."
  • 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.
  • Lightning Can Do Anything:
    Electricity, n. The power that causes all natural phenomena not known to be caused by something else.
  • 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.
  • Mind Screw: In his definition of "Ubiquity", he writes "In recent times ubiquity has not always been understood—not even by Sir Boyle Roche, for example, who held that a man cannot be in two places at once unless he is a bird.". Yes, Roche really said that, if not in those exact words. And no, it didn't make any more sense then either.
  • 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.
  • Nepotism:
    Deputy, n. A male relative of an office-holder, or of his bondsman.
  • 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. [...]
  • New Friend Envy:
    Antipathy, n. The sentiment inspired by one's friend's friend.
  • Overly Long Gag: The definition of infidel clearly follows this trope.
  • Overly Narrow Superlative:
    Connoisseur, n. A specialist who knows everything about something and nothing about anything else.
  • Parody: Of the dictionary of all things.
  • Police Brutality:
    Riot, n. A popular entertainment given to the military by innocent bystanders.
  • Predation Is Natural: Bierce’s definition of Edible suggests this, with a “circle of life” spin to it.
    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.
  • Protagonist-Centered Morality: Several of the definitions fall into this category:
    Bigot, n. One who is obstinately and zealously attached to an opinion that you do not entertain.
    Calamity, n. Are of two kinds: misfortune to ourselves, and good fortune to others.
    Callous, n. Gifted with great fortitude to bear the evils afflicting another.
    Commendation, n. The tribute we pay to achievements that resemble, but do not equal, our own.
    Egotist, n. A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.
  • Realpolitik
    Contempt, n. The feeling of a prudent man for an enemy who is too formidable safely to be opposed.
  • Remonstrating with a Gun
    Admonition, n. Gentle reproof, as with a meat-axe. Friendly warning.
  • The Resenter:
    Congratulation, n. The civility of envy.
  • 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.
  • Sarcastic Clapping:
    Applause, n. The echo of a platitude.
  • 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 Versus 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.
  • Spoof Aesop: The messages are intentionally negative and deeply cynical, e.g. marriage is a form of mutual slavery, religious people are all hypocrites etc. invoked
  • Squeamish About Slaughter: His definition of Carnivorous suggests that Bierce might feel this way (not surprising if so, as he'd been in some of the bloodiest Civil War battles, and is widely thought to have suffered PTSD as a result).
    Carnivorous, adj. Addicted to the cruelty of devouring the timorous vegetarian, his heirs and assigns.
  • 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.
  • Tropes in Shining Armor
    Armor, n. The kind of clothing worn by a man whose tailor is a blacksmith.
  • 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."
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: You need to be very well-educated in order to understand all the entries.
    • There are several puns in Latin.
    • Bierce makes a reference to the croaking chorus of The Frogs by Aristophanes. (Yes, the one referenced in the Major General Song.)
  • 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.