Sunday, July 05, 2009

Sweet Ambrose, Nectar of the Gods




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Originally published as The Cynics World Book in 1906, Ambrose Bierce's The Devils Dictionary is a showcase for Bierce's sardonic wit. In it he exposes and mocks the folly and arrogance of man. In the preface, Bierce writes that the audience for the book is "enlightened souls who prefer dry wines to sweet, sense to sentiment, wit to humor and clean English to slang." Thus, so as to not insult my high opinion of myself, I am forced to profess my enjoyment of it publicly.

From this hit-and-miss book I have selected my favorite definitions. I didn't intend to select so many, but after going back to edit them down, I found that I could not part with a single one. As H.L. Mencken said: "Among the series of epigrams called THE DEVIL'S DICTIONARY are some of the most gorgeous witticisms in the English Language." I advise you to enjoy them, lest you be forced to think less of yourself.


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ABORIGINES
, n. Persons of little worth found cumbering the soil of a newly discovered country. They soon cease to cumber; they fertilize.

ABSURDITY
, n. A statement or belief manifestly inconsistent with one's own opinion.

ACHIEVEMENT
, n. The death of endeavor and the birth of disgust.

ACQUAINTANCE, n. A person whom we know well enough to borrow from, but not well enough to lend to. A degree of friendship called slight when its object is poor or obscure, and intimate when he is rich or famous.

ADMIRATION, n. Our polite recognition of another's resemblance to ourselves.

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

APOLOGIZE, v.i. To lay the foundation for a future offence.

APPEAL, v.t. In law, to put the dice into the box for another throw.

ARMOR, n. The kind of clothing worn by a man whose tailor is a blacksmith.

AUCTIONEER, n. The man who proclaims with a hammer that he has picked a pocket with his tongue.

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.

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.

CLERGYMAN, n. A man who undertakes the management of our spiritual affairs as a method of bettering his temporal ones.

COMFORT, n. A state of mind produced by contemplation of a neighbor's uneasiness.

COMMERCE, n. A kind of transaction in which A plunders from B the goods of C, and for compensation B picks the pocket of D of money belonging to E.

CONSULT, v.i. To seek another's disapproval of a course already decided on.

CONTEMPT, n. The feeling of a prudent man for an enemy who is too formidable safely to be opposed.

CORPORATION, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.

COWARD, n. One who in a perilous emergency thinks with his legs.

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.

DAWN, n. The time when men of reason go to bed. Certain old men prefer to rise at about that time, taking a cold bath and a long walk with an empty stomach, and otherwise mortifying the flesh. They then point with pride to these practices as the cause of their sturdy health and ripe years; the truth being that they are hearty and old, not because of their habits, but in spite of them. The reason we find only robust persons doing this thing is that it has killed all the others who have tried it.

DEBT, n. An ingenious substitute for the chain and whip of the slave-driver.

DEFAME, v.t. To lie about another. To tell the truth about another.

DELIBERATION, n. The act of examining one's bread to determine which side it is buttered on.

ECCENTRICITY, n. A method of distinction so cheap that fools employ it to accentuate their incapacity.

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.

ELOQUENCE, n. The art of orally persuading fools that white is the color that it appears to be. It includes the gift of making any color appear white.

EULOGY, n. Praise of a person who has either the advantages of wealth and power, or the consideration to be dead.

EVANGELIST, n. A bearer of good tidings, particularly (in a religious sense) such as assure us of our own salvation and the damnation of our neighbors.

EXPOSTULATION, n. One of the many methods by which fools prefer to lose their friends.

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

FLAG, n. A colored rag borne above troops and hoisted on forts and ships. It appears to serve the same purpose as certain signs that one sees and vacant lots in London—"Rubbish may be shot here."

FLESH, n. The Second Person of the secular Trinity.

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.

FORGETFULNESS, n. A gift of God bestowed upon doctors in compensation for their destitution of conscience.

FRIENDLESS, adj. Having no favors to bestow. Destitute of fortune. Addicted to utterance of truth and common sense.

FRIENDSHIP, n. A ship big enough to carry two in fair weather, but only one in foul.

FUTURE, n. That period of time in which our affairs prosper, our friends are true and our happiness is assured.

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

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. The handkerchief is of recent invention; our ancestors knew nothing of it and intrusted its duties to the sleeve. Shakespeare's introducing it into the play of "Othello" is an anachronism: Desdemona dried her nose with her skirt, as Dr. Mary Walker and other reformers have done with their coattails in our own day—an evidence that revolutions sometimes go backward.

HAPPINESS, n. An agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another.

HEBREW, n. A male Jew, as distinguished from the Shebrew, an altogether superior creation.

HIPPOGRIFF, n. An animal (now extinct) which was half horse and half griffin. The griffin was itself a compound creature, half lion and half eagle. The hippogriff was actually, therefore, a one-quarter eagle, which is two dollars and fifty cents in gold. The study of zoology is full of surprises.

HOMOEOPATHIST, n. The humorist of the medical profession.

HYPOCRITE, n. One who, professing virtues that he does not respect, secures the advantage of seeming to be what he despises.

IGNORAMUS, n. A person unacquainted with certain kinds of knowledge familiar to yourself, and having certain other kinds that you know nothing about.

IMAGINATION, n. A warehouse of facts, with poet and liar in joint ownership.

IMMODEST, adj. Having a strong sense of one's own merit, coupled with a feeble conception of worth in others.

IMPIETY, n. Your irreverence toward my deity.

INFANCY, n. The period of our lives when, according to Wordsworth, "Heaven lies about us." The world begins lying about us pretty soon afterward.

INFIDEL, n. In New York, one who does not believe in the Christian religion; in Constantinople, one who does.

INFLUENCE, n. In politics, a visionary quo given in exchange for a substantial quid.

INNATE, adj. Natural, inherent—as innate ideas, that is to say, ideas that we are born with, having had them previously imparted to us. The doctrine of innate ideas is one of the most admirable faiths of philosophy, being itself an innate idea and therefore inaccessible to disproof, though Locke foolishly supposed himself to have given it "a black eye." Among innate ideas may be mentioned the belief in one's ability to conduct a newspaper, in the greatness of one's country, in the superiority of one's civilization, in the importance of one's personal affairs and in the interesting nature of one's diseases.

KLEPTOMANIAC, n. A rich thief.

LABOR, n. One of the processes by which A acquires property for B.

LAND, n. A part of the earth's surface, considered as property. The theory that land is property subject to private ownership and control is the foundation of modern society, and is eminently worthy of the superstructure. Carried to its logical conclusion, it means that some have the right to prevent others from living; for the right to own implies the right exclusively to occupy; and in fact laws of trespass are enacted wherever property in land is recognized. It follows that if the whole area of terra firma is owned by A, B and C, there will be no place for D, E, F and G to be born, or, born as trespassers, to exist.

LANGUAGE, n. The music with which we charm the serpents guarding another's treasure.

LAWYER, n. One skilled in circumvention of the law.

LAZINESS, n. Unwarranted repose of manner in a person of low degree.

LECTURER, n. One with his hand in your pocket, his tongue in your ear and his faith in your patience.

LIBERTY, n. One of Imagination's most precious possessions.

The rising People, hot and out of breath,
Roared around the palace: "Liberty or death!"
"If death will do," the King said, "let me reign;
You'll have, I'm sure, no reason to complain."

MAD, adj. Affected with a high degree of intellectual independence; not conforming to standards of thought, speech and action derived by the conformants from study of themselves; at odds with the majority; in short, unusual. It is noteworthy that persons are pronounced mad by officials destitute of evidence that themselves are sane. For illustration, this present (and illustrious) lexicographer is no firmer in the faith of his own sanity than is any inmate of any madhouse in the land; yet for aught he knows to the contrary, instead of the lofty occupation that seems to him to be engaging his powers he may really be beating his hands against the window bars of an asylum and declaring himself Noah Webster, to the innocent delight of many thoughtless spectators.

MAN, n. An animal so lost in rapturous contemplation of what he thinks he is as to overlook what he indubitably ought to be. His chief occupation is extermination of other animals and his own species, which, however, multiplies with such insistent rapidity as to infest the whole habitable earth and Canada.

MERCY, n. An attribute beloved of detected offenders.

METROPOLIS, n. A stronghold of provincialism.

MINE, adj. Belonging to me if I can hold or seize it.

NEIGHBOR, n. One whom we are commanded to love as ourselves, and who does all he knows how to make us disobedient.

NONSENSE, n. The objections that are urged against this excellent dictionary.

OCEAN, n. A body of water occupying about two~thirds of a world made for man — who has no gills.

ONCE, adv. Enough.

OUTDO, v.t. To make an enemy.

PATRIOT, n. One to whom the interests of a part seem superior to those of the whole. The dupe of statesmen and the tool of conquerors.

PATRIOTISM, n. 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.

PERSEVERANCE, n. A lowly virtue whereby mediocrity achieves an inglorious success.

"Persevere, persevere!" cry the homilists all,
Themselves, day and night, persevering to bawl.
"Remember the fable of tortoise and hare—
The one at the goal while the other is—where?"
Why, back there in Dreamland, renewing his lease
Of life, all his muscles preserving the peace,
The goal and the rival forgotten alike,
And the long fatigue of the needless hike.
His spirit a-squat in the grass and the dew
Of the dogless Land beyond the Stew,
He sleeps, like a saint in a holy place,
A winner of all that is good in a race.

-Sukker Uffro

PHILANTHROPIST, n. A rich (and usually bald) old gentleman who has trained himself to grin while his conscience is picking his pocket.

PHILISTINE, n. One whose mind is the creature of its environment, following the fashion in thought, feeling and sentiment. He is sometimes learned, frequently prosperous, commonly clean and always solemn.

PHRENOLOGY
, n. The science of picking the pocket through the scalp. It consists in locating and exploiting the organ that one is a dupe with.

PLEASE, v. To lay the foundation for a superstructure of imposition.

POLITENESS, n. The most acceptable hypocrisy.

POSITIVE, adj. Mistaken at the top of one's voice.

POSTERITY, n. An appellate court which reverses the judgment of a popular author's contemporaries, the appellant being his obscure competitor.

PREDILECTION, n. The preparatory stage of disillusion.

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

PROPERTY, n. Any material thing, having no particular value, that may be held by A against the cupidity of B. Whatever gratifies the passion for possession in one and disappoints it in all others. The object of man's brief rapacity and long indifference.

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

RASH
, adj. Insensible to the value of our advice.

REASONABLE, adj. Accessible to the infection of our own opinions. Hospitable to persuasion, dissuasion and evasion.

REBEL, n. A proponent of a new misrule who has failed to establish it.

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

RIOT, n. A popular entertainment given to the military by innocent bystanders.

SATIRE, n. An obsolete kind of literary composition in which the vices and follies of the author's enemies were expounded with imperfect tenderness. In this country satire never had more than a sickly and uncertain existence, for the soul of it is wit, wherein we are dolefully deficient, the humor that we mistake for it, like all humor, being tolerant and sympathetic. Moreover, although Americans are "endowed by their Creator" with abundant vice and folly, it is not generally known that these are reprehensible qualities, wherefore the satirist is popularly regarded as a soul-spirited knave, and his ever victim's outcry for codefendants evokes a national assent.

SCRIPTURES, n. The sacred books of our holy religion, as distinguished from the false and profane writings on which all other faiths are based.

SELF-ESTEEM, n. An erroneous appraisement.

SELF-EVIDENT, adj. Evident to one's self and to nobody else.

SLANG, n. The grunt of the human hog (Pignoramus intolerabilis) with an audible memory. The speech of one who utters with his tongue what he thinks with his ear, and feels the pride of a creator in accomplishing the feat of a parrot. A means (under Providence) of setting up as a wit without a capital of sense.

TAIL, n. The part of an animal's spine that has transcended its natural limitations to set up an independent existence in a world of its own. Excepting in its foetal state, Man is without a tail, a privation of which he attests an hereditary and uneasy consciousness by the coat-skirt of the male and the train of the female, and by a marked tendency to ornament that part of his attire where the tail should be, and indubitably once was. This tendency is most observable in the female of the species, in whom the ancestral sense is strong and persistent. The tailed men described by Lord Monboddo are now generally regarded as a product of an imagination unusually susceptible to influences generated in the golden age of our pithecan past.

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

TRICHINOSIS
, n. The pig's reply to proponents of porcophagy.

TRUCE
, n. Friendship.

UN-AMERICAN, adj. Wicked, intolerable, heathenish.

WIT, n. The salt with which the American humorist spoils his intellectual cookery by leaving it out.

WITTICISM
, n. A sharp and clever remark, usually quoted, and seldom noted; what the Philistine is pleased to call a "joke."

YANKEE, n. In Europe, an American. In the Northern States of our Union, a New Englander. In the Southern States the word is unknown. (See DAMYANK.)

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

9 comments:

Hectocotylus said...

I just looked deeper into the history of this publication; apparently there is now a version of The Devil's Dictionary which contains 600 more entries than the 1958 Dover edition that inspired this post. The same version also boasts of removing nearly 200 entries falsely attributed to Bierce in previous editions.

aureliomadrid said...

...some were horrid & others were just crazy! I liked the entry for fool!!

Thank you!

Aurelio

Hectocotylus said...

Horrid seems a bit harsh, unless you're talking about the worldview they express, not their quality. (I can see how some of the definitions might be a bit too cynical for some people's taste.) Either way, I'm glad you liked some of them!

aureliomadrid said...

(here is what I meant by horrid) "ABORIGINES, n. Persons of little worth found cumbering the soil of a newly discovered country. They soon cease to cumber; they fertilize."

thanks for the post nonetheless...never heard of him before.

Hectocotylus said...

Oh. In my view, that is great because it perfectly satirizes the way America (or any powerful nation) has viewed and treated indigenous people throughout history. Pests, not people. Colonize, then genocide. It also pokes fun of the ridiculous attitude and inherent racism contained in the fact that Europeans claimed to have discovered America... even though there were already people here! (A story that has been played out many times throughout history.) "These people don't count; they're cumbering our progress. They're good for nothing but fertilizer."

Bierce was one of the world's great wits and an all around interesting fellow. In 1893 he published a short story, The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, about a man who vanishes without a trace in an instant. Then, after joining the revolutionary forces of Pancho Villa, Ambrose Bierce vanished without a trace in 1913.

Isabelle said...

Thanks so much for this brilliant post! Highly enjoyable read...'sardonic wit' indeed.

Must now purchase my own copy of Ambrose Bierce's The Devils Dictionary.

PS Only today discovered your two fabulous blogs...magnificently interesting! Appreciate the time and effort you obviously put into both blogs. Well done.

Hectocotylus said...

Thanks! I'm very glad to hear this.

As for The Devils Dictionary, unfortunately much of it falls short of the above selections, but of course they are only my personal favorites and as such won't be everyone's. And with 600 additional entries, who knows what other gems lurk in the newer edition. I hope you enjoy the rest of it!

Pierian Rose said...

The Devil's Dictionary is the best book ever written in its genre: step aside merriam-webster.

You might enjoy browsing the "Doubters Companion" by J.R. Saul. Sometimes it is dry. Not as good as the devils dictionary, but it does a good job negotiating the truth value of the entries, the simplicity of its prose and fun.

Examples:

A Big Mac: The communion wafer of consumption.

McDonald, Ronald: Post-modern philosopher. In somewhat the same way that Voltaire was the public intellectual face of the Enlightenment, Ronald McDonald is the face and the voice of consumer culture [...]

University: a place in which a civilization's knowledge is divided up into exclusive territories. The principal occupation of the academic community is to invent dialects sufficiently hermetic to prevent knowledge from passing between territories.

Hectocotylus said...

Hah, the definition for "University" is spot on, and, dare I say, as good as anything in Devil's Dictionary. Thanks for the recommendation -- I'll keep my eye out for the book.