The Devil’s Dictionary

Ambrose Bierce

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.

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

Adore, v.t. To venerate expectantly.

Apostate, n. A leech who, having penetrated the shell of a turtle only to find that the creature has long been dead, deems it expedient to form a new attachment to a fresh turtle.

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

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. One who follows the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.

Consolation, n. The knowledge that a better man is more unfortunate than yourself.

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.

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

Elysium, n. An imaginary delightful country which the ancients foolishly believed to be inhabited by the spirits of the good. This ridiculous and mischievous fable was swept off the face of the earth by the early Christians—may their souls be happy in Heaven!

Embalm, v.t. To cheat vegetation by locking up the gases upon which it feeds. By embalming their dead and thereby deranging the natural balance between animal and vegetable life, the Egyptians made their once fertile and populous country barren and incapable of supporting more than a meagre crew. The modern metallic burial casket is a step in the same direction, and many a dead man who ought now to be ornamenting his neighbor’s lawn as a tree, or enriching his table as a bunch of radishes, is doomed to long inutility. We shall get him after awhile if we are spared, but in the meantime the violet and rose are languishing for a nibble at his glutoeus maximus.

Eucharist, n. A sacred feast of the religious sect of Theophagi. A dispute once unhappily arose among the members of this sect as to what it was they ate. In this controversy some five hundred thousand have already been slain, and the question is still unsettled.

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

Frankalmoigne, n. The tenure by which a religious corporation holds lands on condition of praying for the soul of the donor. In medieval times many of the wealthiest fraternities obtained their estates in this simple and cheap manner, and once when Henry VIII of England sent an officer to confiscate certain vast possessions which a fraternity of monks held by frankalmoigne, “What!” said the Prior, “would your master stay our benefactor’s soul in Purgatory?” “Ay,” said the officer, coldly, “an ye will not pray him thence for naught he must e’en roast.” “But look you, my son,” persisted the good man, “this act hath rank as robbery of God!” “Nay, nay, good father, my master the king doth but deliver Him from the manifold temptations of too great wealth.”

Grave, n. A place in which the dead are laid to await the coming of the medical student.

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

Heaven, n. A place where the wicked cease from troubling you with talk of their personal affairs, and the good listen with attention while you expound your own.

Homeopathy, n. A school of medicine midway between Allopathy and Christian Science. To the last both the others are distinctly inferior, for Christian Science will cure imaginary diseases, and they can not.

Impiety, n. Your irreverence toward my deity.

Infralapsarian, n. One who ventures to believe that Adam need not have sinned unless he had a mind to—in opposition to the Supralapsarians, who hold that that luckless person’s fall was decreed from the beginning. Infralapsarians are sometimes called Sublapsarians without material effect upon the importance and lucidity of their views about Adam.

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.

Logic, n. The art of thinking and reasoning in strict accordance with the limitations and incapacities of the human misunderstanding.

Magnet, n. Something acted upon by magnetism.

Magnetism, n. Something acting upon a magnet.

Manna, n. A food miraculously given to the Israelites in the wilderness. When it was no longer supplied to them they settled down and tilled the soil, fertilizing it, as a rule, with the bodies of the original occupants.

Mayonnaise, n. One of the sauces which serve the French in place of a state religion.

Meekness, n. Uncommon patience in planning a revenge that is worth while.

Nihilist, n. A Russian who denies the existence of anything but Tolstoi. The leader of the school is Tolstoi.

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 sub-tribe 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.

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

Oppose, v. To assist with obstructions and objections.

Orthodox, n. An ox wearing the popular religious joke.

Ostrich, n. A large bird to which (for its sins, doubtless) nature has denied that hinder toe in which so many pious naturalists have seen a conspicuous evidence of design. The absence of a good working pair of wings is no defect, for, as has been ingeniously pointed out, the ostrich does not fly.

Overwork, n. A dangerous disorder affecting high public functionaries who want to go fishing.

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

Piano, n. A parlor utensil for subduing the impenitent visitor. It is operated by depressing the keys of the machine and the spirits of the audience.

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

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

Pre-Adamite, n. One of an experimental and apparently unsatisfactory race that antedated Creation and lived under conditions not easily conceived. Melsius believed them to have inhabited “the Void” and to have been something intermediate between fishes and birds. Little is known of them beyond the fact that they supplied Cain with a wife and theologians with a controversy.

Present, n. That part of eternity dividing the domain of disappointment fro
m the realm of hope.

Primate, n. The head of a church, especially a State church supported by involuntary contributions. The Primate of England is the Archbishop of Canterbury, an amiable old gentleman, who occupies Lambeth Palace when living and Westminster Abbey when dead. He is commonly dead.

Railroad, n. The chief of many mechanical devices enabling us to get away from where we are to where we are no better off.

Realism, n. The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads.

Recreation, n. A particular kind of dejection to relieve a general fatigue.

Religion, n. A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.

Revelation, n. A famous book in which St. John the Divine concealed all that he knew. The revealing is done by the commentators, who know nothing.

Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited.

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

Theosophy, n. An ancient faith having all the certitude of religion and all the mystery of science. The modern Theosophist holds, with the Buddhists, that we live an incalculable number of times on this earth, in as many several bodies, because one life is not long enough for our complete spiritual development; that is, a single lifetime does not suffice for us to become as wise and good as we choose to wish to become. To be absolutely wise and good—that is perfection; and the Theosophist is so keen-sighted as to have observed that everything desirous of improvement eventually attains perfection. Less competent observers are disposed to except cats, which seem neither wiser nor better than they were last year. The greatest and fattest of recent Theosophists was the late Madame Blatavsky, who had no cat.

Worship, n. Homo Creator’s testimony to the sound construction and fine finish of Deus Creatus. A popular form of abjection, having an element of pride.

 


Editor’s Note: From The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce (New York: Library of America, 2011).

Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Bierce’s star, once the most tentative of glimmers on the American literary landscape, has shone a bit brighter every year since his death, and he is at last getting something like the attention that is his due. My favorite biography of him is Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company by Roy Morris Jr. (Oxford, 1995), which gives his literary abilities full credit and in a style that has sprinkles of Bierce himself. For Bierce’s works, the Library of America edition is a very good collection, featuring his war stories, reminiscences, horror tales, and the complete Devil’s Dictionary, though none of his journalism is represented.


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

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