From The Devil’s Dictionary Ambrose Bierce would have liked language's current undoing. Hence, this tribute.

As a horror writer, Ambrose Bierce (1842-circa 1914) was the poor man’s H. P. Lovecraft, as a satirist, he was the poor man’s Mark Twain and as a journalist, the poor man’s H. L. Mencken, for whom he was a considerable source of inspiration.


Ambrose Bierce Collection, Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library

Known for his misanthropy and for being one of San Francisco’s prolific newspaper writers, Bierce can take a strange comfort, if for the dead there exists even greater comfort than the finality of being dead, in being remembered by a later generation as looking exactly like an old Gregory Peck, the actor who played him in The Old Gringo (1989), the film version of Carlos Fuentes’s 1985 novel.

There are worse fates for a historical figure than having the world think you look and sound like Gregory Peck. The Devil’s Dictionary, Bierce’s wicked send-up of a reference book, was originally published, that is, a version of it, in 1906 as The Cynic’s Word Book. When I first read it as an undergraduate, I thought parts of it were deliciously funny. I was especially struck by his definition of blacks. “NEGRO, n. The piece de resistance in the American political problem. Representing him by the letter n, the Republicans begin to build their equation thus: ‘Let n = the white man.’ This, however, appears to give an unsatisfactory solution.”

I thought it was hilarious. This definition was deleted in the reprint of The Devil’s Dictionary in The Collected Writings of Ambrose Bierce (1946), probably because modern readers would find it racist, or possibly racist. Part of what makes this form of cynicism effective is that it sometimes comes close to being offensive. Bierce has the virtue of not being nearly as offensive a cynic as, say, Céline, nor as ugly in his politics. In any case, one can discern from his definitions of dictionary and lexicographer that Bierce did not like dictionaries or lexicographers because of their claim to authority, to nailing down a language. (Of course, he does refer to himself as lexicographer throughout The Devil’s Dictionary.) I suppose he would have liked our current age of the Internet’s democratic undoing of the authority of the dictionary. I wonder if he were doing his dictionary today what definition he would give for dictionary, or for blacks, or for the Internet, for that matter. The Common Reader will republish in each issue an excerpt of a classic nonfiction prose work related to the issue’s theme. Some selections from The Devil’s Dictionary seemed appropriate for an issue about controversies with language.


Abasement, n. A decent and customary mental attitude in the presence of wealth or power. Peculiarly appropriate in an employee when addressing an employer.


Abnormal, adj. Not conforming to standard. In matters of thought and conduct, to be independent is to be abnormal, to be abnormal is to be detested. Wherefore the lexicographer adviseth a striving toward a straiter resemblance to the Average Man than he hath to himself. Whoso attaineth thereto shall have peace, the prospect of death and the hope of Hell.


Absentee, n. A person with an income who has had the forethought to remove himself from the sphere of exaction.


Absurdity, n. A statement of belief manifestly inconsistent with one’s own opinion.


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


Administration, n. An ingenious abstraction in politics, designed to receive the kicks and cuffs due to the premier or president. A man of straw, proof against bad-egging and dead-catting.


Affliction, n. An acclimatizing process preparing the soul for another and bitter world.


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.


Arena, n. In politics, an imaginary rat-pit in which the statesman wrestles with his record.


Bigot, n. One who is obstinately and zealously attached to an opinion that you do not entertain.


Brain, n. An apparatus with which we think that we think. That which distinguishes the man who is content to be something from the man who wishes to do something. A man of great wealth, or one who has been pitchforked into high station, has commonly such a headful of brain that his neighbors cannot keep their hats on. In our civilization, and under our republican form of government, brain is so highly honored that it is rewarded by exemption from the cares of office.


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.


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.


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


Dictator, n. The chief of a nation that prefers the pestilence of despotism to the plague of anarchy.


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.


Disobedience, n. The silver lining to the cloud of servitude.


Distance, n. The only thing that the rich are willing for the poor to call theirs, and keep.


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


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


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


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


Hatred, n. A sentiment appropriate to the occasion of another’s superiority.


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


Impiety, n. Your irreverence toward my deity.


Impunity, n. Wealth.


Insurrection, n. An unsuccessful revolution. Disaffection’s failure to substitute misrule for bad government.


Learning, n. The kind of ignorance distinguishing the studious.


Lexicographer, n. A pestilent fellow who, under the pretense of recording some particular stage in the development of a language, does what he can to arrest its growth, stiffen its flexibility and mechanize its methods. For your lexicographer, having written his dictionary, comes to be considered “as one having authority,” whereas his function is only to make a record, not to give a law. The natural servility of the human understanding having invested him with judicial power, surrenders its right of reason and submits itself to a chronicle as if it were a statute. Let the dictionary (for example) mark a good word as “obsolete” or “obsolescent” and few men thereafter venture to use it, whatever their need of it and however desirable its restoration to favor—whereby the process of impoverishment is accelerated and speech decays. On the contrary, the bold and discerning writer who, recognizing the truth that language must grow by innovation if it grow at all, makes new words and uses the old in an unfamiliar sense, has no following and is tartly reminded that “it isn’t in the dictionary”—although down to the time of the first lexicographer (Heaven forgive him!) no author ever had used a word that was in the dictionary. In the golden prime and high noon of English speech; when from the lips of the great Elizabethans fell words that made their own meaning and carried it in their very sound; when a Shakespeare and a Bacon were possible, and the language now rapidly perishing at one end and slowly renewed at the other was in vigorous growth and hardy preservation—sweeter than honey and stronger than a lion—the lexicographer was a person unknown, the dictionary a creation which his Creator had not created him to create.

God said: “Let Spirit perish into Form,”

And lexicographers arose, a swarm!

Thought fled and left her clothing, which they took,

And catalogued each garment in a book.

Now, from her leafy covert when she cries:

“Give me my clothes and I’ll return,” they rise

And scan the list, and say without compassion:

“Excuse us—they are mostly out of fashion.”

—Sigismund Smith


Longevity, n. Uncommon extension of the fear of death.


Philosophy, n. A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.


Plagiarize, v. To take the thought or style of another writer

whom one has never, never read.


Poverty, n. A file provided for the teeth of the rats of reform. The number of plans for its abolition equals that of the reformers who suffer from it, plus that of the philosophers who know nothing about it. Its victims are distinguished by possession of all the virtues and by their faith in leaders seeking to conduct them into a prosperity where they believe these to be unknown.


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


Radicalism, n. The conservatism of tomorrow injected into the affairs of today.


Reason, v. To weigh probabilities in the scales of desire.


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


Self-evident, adj. Evident to one’s self and to nobody else.