The Devil’s Dictionary: The 50-ish Best Descriptions From The Cynic’s Word Book, 1906

Highlights from Ambrose Bierce's satirical work of world literature

Written by American journalist Ambrose Bierce (24 June 1842 – c.1914), The Devil’s Dictionary, aka The Cynic’s Word Book, consists of common words followed by humorous and satirical definitions. The book was a compilation of Bierce’s columns for The Wasp (1881–1860 plus) and The San Francisco Examiner in 1887.



Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary first appeared in the March 5, 1881 issue of The Wasp. He wrote 79 The Devil’s Dictionary columns for the paper, working his way alphabetically from ‘A’ to L for “lickspittle” in the 14 Aug. 1886 issue. After he left The Wasp for The San Francisco Examiner in 1887, Bierce’s next instalment of his satirical dictionary appeared in the 4 September 1887 issue on page 4, under the title The Cynic’s Dictionary. Bierce wrote one more column (which ran in the 29 April 1888 Examiner, page 4), and then no more for the next 16 years.

In the meantime, Bierce’s idea of a “comic dictionary” was imitated by others, and his witty definitions were plagiarized without crediting him. One imitator even copied the name of Bierce’s column.

In September 1903, Bierce wrote letters to his friend Herman George Scheffauer mentioning he was thinking about a book of his satirical definitions “regularly arranged as in a real dictionary.” In 1906, it was published.

Here are 50 (or so) highlights from The Devil’s Dictionary:

Abdication, n. An act whereby a sovereign attests his sense of the high temperature of the throne.

Absent, adj. Peculiarly exposed to the tooth of detraction; vilified; hopelessly in the wrong; superseded in the consideration and affection of another.

Admiration, n. Our polite recognition of another’s resemblance to ourselves.

Advice, n. The smallest current coin.

Air, n. A nutritious substance supplied by a bountiful Providence for the fattening of the poor.

Alliance, n. In international politics, the union of two thieves who have their hands so deeply inserted in each other’s pocket that they cannot separately plunder a third.

Applause, n. The echo of a platitude.

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

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.

Back, n. That part of your friend which it is your privilege to contemplate in your adversity.

Boundary, n. In political geography, an imaginary line between two nations, separating the imaginary rights of one from the imaginary rights of the other.

Brute, n. See Husband.

Cabbage, n. A familiar kitchen-garden vegetable about as large and wise as a man’s head.

Calamity, n. A more than commonly plain and unmistakable reminder that the affairs of this life are not of our own ordering. Calamities are of two kinds: misfortune to ourselves, and good fortune to others.

Cannon, (n.) An instrument employed in the rectification of national boundaries.

Cat, n. A soft, indestructible automaton provided by nature to be kicked when things go wrong in the domestic circle.

Cemetery, n. An isolated suburban spot where mourners match lies, poets write at a target, and stone-cutters spell for a wager.

Cerberus, n. The watch-dog of Hades, whose duty it was to guard the entrance—against whom or what does not clearly appear; everybody, sooner or later, had to go there, and nobody wanted to carry off the entrance.

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.

Conversation, n. A fair for the display of minor mental commodities, each exhibitor being too intent upon the arrangement of his own wares to observe those of this neighbor.

Conservative, (n.), A statesman who is enamoured of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.

Curse, v.t. Energetically to belabor with a verbal slap-stick. This is an operation which in literature, particularly in the drama, is commonly fatal to the victim.

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.

Deputy, n. A male relative of an office-holder, or of his bondsman. The deputy is commonly a beautiful young man, with a red necktie and an intricate system of cobwebs extending from his nose to his desk. When accidentally struck by the janitor’s broom, he gives off a cloud of dust.

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. The word is found in an immortal couplet by that eminent poet and domestic economist, Senator Depew:

A cube of cheese no larger than a die
May bait the trap to catch a nibbling mie.

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 an idle wag of the Solomonic tail, seasoned with a look of tolerant recognition.

Education, n. That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.

Egotist, (n.) ,A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.

Elegy, n. A composition in verse, in which without employing any of the methods of humor, the writer aims to produce in the reader’s mind the dampest kind of dejection.

Envelope, n. The coffin of a document; the scabbard of a bill; the husk of a remittance; the bed-gown of a love-letter.

Exhort, v.t. In religious affairs, to put the conscience of another upon the spit and roast it to a nut-brown discomfort.

Exile, n. One who serves his country by residing abroad, yet is not an ambassador.
An English sea-captain being asked if he had read “The Exile of Erin,” replied: “No, sir, but I should like to anchor on it.” Years afterward, when he had been hanged as a pirate after a career of unparalleled atrocities, the following memorandum was found in the ship’s log that he had kept at the time of his reply: “Aug. 3d, 1842. Made a joke on the ex-Isle of Erin. Coldly received. War with the whole world!”

Fork, n. An instrument used chiefly for the purpose of putting dead animals into the mouth. Formerly the knife was used for this purpose, and by many worthy persons is still thought to have many advantages over the other tool, which, however, they do not altogether reject, but use to assist in the charging of the knife. The immunity of these persons from swift and awful death is one of the most striking proofs of God’s mercy to those that hate Him.

Frog, n. A reptile with edible legs. The first mention of frogs in profane literature is in Homer’s narrative of the war between them and the mice. Skeptical persons have doubted Homer’s authorship of the work, but the learned, ingenious and industrious Dr. Schliemann has set the question forever at rest by uncovering the bones of the slain frogs.

Gallows, n. A stage for the performance of miracle plays, in which the leading actor is translated to heaven. In this country the gallows is chiefly remarkable for the number of persons who escape it.

Handkerchief, n. A small square of silk or linen, used in various ignoble offices about the face and especially serviceable at funerals to conceal the lack of tears.

Harangue, n. A speech by an opponent, who is known as an harangue-outang.

Hearse, n. Death’s baby-carriage.

Hostility, n. A peculiarly sharp and specially applied sense of the earth’s overpopulation.

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

Interpreter, n. One who enables two persons of different languages to understand each other by repeating to each what it would have been to the interpreter’s advantage for the other to have said.

Introduction, n. A social ceremony invented by the devil for the gratification of his servants and the plaguing of his enemies.

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

Lawyer, (n.), One skilled in circumvention of the law.

Litigation, n. A machine which you go into as a pig and come out of as a sausage.

Love, (n.), A temporary insanity curable by marriage.

Medicine, n. A stone flung down the Bowery to kill a dog in Broadway.

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

Miss, n. A 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.

Mustang, n. An indocile horse of the western plains. In English society, the American wife of an English nobleman.

Notoriety, n. The fame of one’s competitor for public honors. The kind of renown most accessible and acceptable to mediocrity. A Jacob’s-ladder leading to the vaudeville stage, with angels ascending and descending.

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.

Piracy, n. Commerce without its folly-swaddles, just as God made it.

Plague, n. In ancient times a general punishment of the innocent for admonition of their ruler, as in the familiar instance of Pharoah the Immune. The plague as we of to-day have the happiness to know it is merely Nature’s fortuitous manifestation of her purposeless objectionableness.

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

Quiver, n. A portable sheath in which the ancient statesman and the aboriginal lawyer carried their lighter arguments.

Rear, n. In American military matters, that exposed part of the army that is nearest to Congress.

Recruit, n. A person distinguishable from a civilian by his uniform and from a soldier by his gait.

Sycophant, n. One who approaches Greatness on his belly so that he may not be commanded to turn and be kicked.

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

Tenacity, n. A certain quality of the human hand in its relation to the coin of the realm.

Un-American, adj. Wicked, intolerable, heathenish.

Virtues, Certain abstentions.

Wedding, n. A ceremony at which two persons undertake to become one, one undertakes to become nothing, and nothing undertakes to become supportable.

Year, n. A period of three hundred and sixty-five disappointments.

Lead Image: Mephistopheles by Odilon Redon

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