08 May 2012

The Devil's Dictionary

Ambrose Gwinett Bierce
    In 1913 noted columnist and short story author Ambrose Gwinett Bierce, then 71 years old, rode his horse across the Rio Grande River into the Mexican town of Ciudad Juarez and from there into oblivion.  Bierce’s intention was to observe first-hand the Mexican revolution, which at the time was well underway.  Bierce managed to track down the Mexican revolutionary leader Pancho Villa in Ciudad Juarez and then reportedly tagged along with Villa’s ragtag army of revolutionaries at least as far as the Mexican city of Chihuahua.  While there is some argument among historians, apparently the last communication from Bierce was a letter written to a close friend, Blanche Partintron, on December 26, 1913.  Only notes concerning the letter, safeguarded by Bierce’s secretary, survive, but according to those notes the letter closed with the following: 

    “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination."  

    Thereafter Ambrose Bierce disappeared without a trace. 

Pancho Villa

   There are many theories concerning what eventually happened to Bierce.  In The Old Gringo, by Carlos Fuentes, the author speculates that Bierce was eventually shot in the back while serving with Pancho Villa’s band of desperados.  The1998 film version of Fuentes’ book, featuring Gregory Peck (in one of his last roles) as Bierce, opts for the same ending.  Local legends in the Mexican Sierras hold that Bierce, who had reportedly become somewhat critical of Pancho Villa toward the end, was executed on Villa’s orders before a firing squad.

    Bierce was always a dark fellow who marched to a different drummer.  The essayist Clifton Fadiman has argued that "Bierce was never a great writer. He has painful faults of vulgarity and cheapness of imagination.”  However, Fadiman also notes that Bierce’s “style, for one thing, will preserve him; and the purity of his misanthropy, too, will help to keep him alive."  Fadiman’s criticism of Bierce may be unfounded – Bierce wrote many columns and short stories, and his stand-out short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, to single out one, has likely been the basis of more television and radio dramas – most recently an episode of Lost – than almost any other short story.  But Fadiman is unarguably correct in his observation that Bierce’s work, and his dark streak, have kept him alive.

    While there is uncertainty as to how Ambrose Bierce met his end, what is certain is that at least one great, albeit brooding, work that he left behind vigorously survives:  The Devil’s Dictionary.   Since 1911 The Devil’s Dictionary, originally titled The Cynic’s Word Book, has never been out of print.  Thanks to the expiring nature of copyrights and the wonders of Project Gutenberg it is also currently available on line and for free.

    The Devil’s Dictionary, for those unfamiliar with the work, is comprised of tongue-in-cheek definitions for common English words.  The definitions were written by Bierce during the period from 1881 through 1906, and were originally offered up in his newspaper columns.  They derive from the commonly understood meaning of each of the defined words, but then tilt that meaning on its axis in a manner that reveals a darker underlying truth.  The definitions, therefore, are not unlike paraprosdokia, the subject of a previous article, but they differ in that they are uniformly (not just occasionally) dark, and are unsparingly cynical. 

    But enough of introductions.  Let’s dive in and examine some prime examples, still relevant after over one hundred years:
  • ABSURDITY, n. A statement or belief manifestly inconsistent with one's own opinion.
  • ACCORDION, n. An instrument in harmony with the sentiments of an assassin.  (A little close to home, but I will address that in a subsequent column!)
  • APOLOGIZE, v.i. To lay the foundation for a future offence.
  • ARDOR, n. The quality that distinguishes love without knowledge.
  • BAIT, n. A preparation that renders the hook more palatable. The best kind is beauty.
  • BAROMETER, n. An ingenious instrument which indicates what kind of weather we are having.
  • BEFRIEND, v.t. To make an ingrate.
  • 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.
  • CANNON, n. An instrument employed in the rectification of national boundaries.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • COMFORT, n. A state of mind produced by contemplation of a neighbor's uneasiness.
  • CONGRATULATION, n. The civility of envy.
  • CONSERVATIVE, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.
  • CRITIC, n. A person who boasts himself hard to please because nobody tries to please him.
  • CYNIC, n. 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.
  • DEFENCELESS, adj. Unable to attack.
  • DESTINY, n. A tyrant's authority for crime and fool's excuse for failure.
  • DIPLOMACY, n. The patriotic art of lying for one's country.
  • DISCUSSION, n. A method of confirming others in their errors.
  • EGOTIST, n. A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.
  • FAITH, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.
  • FIDELITY, n. A virtue peculiar to those who are about to be betrayed.
  • 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.
  • HASH, x. There is no definition for this word -- nobody knows what hash is.
  • 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.
  • IGNORAMUS, n. A person unacquainted with certain kinds of knowledge familiar to yourself, and having certain other kinds that you know nothing about.
  • INCUMBENT, n. A person of the liveliest interest to the outcumbents.
  • INFANCY, n. The period of our lives when, according to Wordsworth, "Heaven lies about us." The world begins lying about us pretty soon afterward.
  • INJURY, n. An offense next in degree of enormity to a slight.
  • 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.
  • LAWFUL, adj. Compatible with the will of a judge having jurisdiction.
  • LAWYER, n. One skilled in circumvention of the law.
  • LOQUACITY, n. A disorder which renders the sufferer unable to curb his tongue when you wish to talk.
  • MAGNIFICENT, adj. Having a grandeur or splendor superior to that to which the spectator is accustomed, as the ears of an ass, to a rabbit, or the glory of a glowworm, to a maggot.
  • MARRIAGE, n. The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two.
  • MONKEY, n. An arboreal animal which makes itself at home in genealogical trees.
  • NIHILIST, n. A Russian who denies the existence of anything but Tolstoy. The leader of the school is Tolstoy.
  • NON-COMBATANT, n. A dead Quaker.
  • OATH, n. In law, a solemn appeal to the Deity, made binding upon the conscience by a penalty for perjury.
  • OUTDO, v.t. To make an enemy.
  • PATIENCE, n. A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.
  • PEACE, n. In international affairs, a period of cheating between two periods of fighting.
  • PIETY, n. Reverence for the Supreme Being, based upon His supposed resemblance to man.
  • PLEASE, v. To lay the foundation for a superstructure of imposition.
  • POLITENESS, n. The most acceptable hypocrisy.
  • PRAY, v. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.
  • PREROGATIVE, n. A sovereign's right to do wrong
  • REALLY, adv. Apparently.
  • RESIDENT, adj. Unable to leave.
  • RESOLUTE, adj. Obstinate in a course that we approve.
  • REVERENCE, n. The spiritual attitude of a man to a god and a dog to a man.
  • RUM, n. Generically, fiery liquors that produce madness in total abstainers.
  • SAINT, n. A dead sinner revised and edited.
  • SELF-EVIDENT, adj. Evident to one's self and to nobody else.
  • TWICE, adv. Once too often.
  • ULTIMATUM, n. In diplomacy, a last demand before resorting to concessions.
  • UN-AMERICAN, adj. Wicked, intolerable, heathenish.
  • VOTE, n. The instrument and symbol of a freeman's power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country.
    Some months back the Washington Post ran a contest in its weekly Style Invitational to come up with additional definitions in the manner of Bierce.  Herewith, the top four entries and winners:
  •  HERO, n.  Someone who, in a crisis, exceeds our lowest expectation.  (Melissa Balmain, Rochester New York)
  •  MUSIC, n. Songs you listened to in college (Kevin Dopart, Washington, D.C.)
  • GRAMMAR, n.  The rules of language as spoken by the generation immediately preceding one's own. (Robert Schechter, Dix Hills, New York)
  • SUPERCOMMITTEE, n. A committee designed by a committee (Gary Crockett, Chevy Chase Maryland)
See you in two weeks!


  1. Dale, now you have me trying to come up with a few of these definitions myself. I studied Bierce in college years ago but had forgotten the interesting tale of his apparent demise. Great column!

  2. Glad Ambrose Bierce is there when we need him- which is often, especially in election season.

  3. My contribution to the dictionary:
    Health Insurance - a supposed safety net that actually works only if you have no need for it.
    Alternative definition: You should have saved more money.

  4. Blog post: a magazine feature article posted on the Internet by a writer who's given up on getting paid for his or her work.

  5. Okay, here are my additions to the list:

    Conservative, n. A Liberal whose child is assaulted.

    Liberal, n. A Conservative whose child is charged with the assault.

  6. Herschel Cozine08 May, 2012 14:04


    I like your definitions of liberal and conservative. So true!
    Your accordion definition reminded me of one I heard: A gentleman is someone who knows how to play the accoridon but doesn't.

    Now, let's see if this comment will be accepted by your "web page owner".

  7. Herschel --

    The accordion quote is from Oscar Wilde. It is one that I intend to use in a subsequent article. You are taking the wind out of my sails! :-)

    -- Dale

  8. Herschel Cozine08 May, 2012 21:00


    Sorry about that. I thought it was rather funny. I have a friend who plays the accordion, but Ive never heard him play. He's a real gentleman.

  9. Remember, Bierce was a veteran of the Civil War and wrote about it in his fiction. And for definitions he might have done today "BLOGGER: Someone who is unemployed." Present Company Excepted! :) :) :)

  10. Some time ago back on Criminal Brief, I posted a column called "Mencken Modernized", wherein I updated several definitions from H.L. Mencken's imitation of The Devil's Dictionary, "The Jazz Webster", Chapter X of his 1907 A Book of Burlesques. Interested readers may find the column here.

    Although cynicism never goes out of style, we should remember that Ambrose Bierce was a man of his time and some of his definitions now appear ignorant and crude rather than clever, e.g., his definition of "Russian": n. A person with a Caucasian body and a Mongolian soul. A Tartar Emetic. Racism is no longer accepted as a sign of wit.

  11. James is correct. In sifting through Bierce's definitions to cull the ones set forth above in the article I came across quite a few that I was not about to include under my own by-line.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>