Ambrose Bierce was a celebrated journalist, storyteller and, above all, cynic. Bierce had a barbed wit, and he often used it to kick American culture square in the teeth. In 1911, he published The Devil’s Dictionary, a partial lexicon that sardonically redefines over 1000 words. Here are some of our favorites.
1. Academy, n. A modern school where football is taught.
2. Achievement, n. The death of endeavor and the birth of disgust.
3. Alone, adj. In bad company.
4. Beauty, n. The power by which a woman charms a lover and terrifies a husband.
5. Behavior, n. Conduct, as determined, not by principle, but by breeding.
6. Brain, n. An apparatus with which we think what we think. That which distinguishes the man who is content to be something from the man who wishes to do something.
7. Cabbage, n. A familiar kitchen-garden vegetable about as large and wise as a man’s head.
8. Cat, n. A soft, indestructible automaton provided by nature to be kicked when things go wrong in the domestic circle.
9. 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.
10. Circus, n. A place where horses, ponies and elephants are permitted to see men and women and children acting the fool.
11. Congratulation, n. The civility of envy.
12. Dentist, n.
A prestidigitator who, putting metal into your mouth, pulls coins out of your pocket.
13. Destiny, n. A tyrant’s authority for crime and a fool’s excuse for failure
14. Edible, n. Good to eat, and wholesome to digest, as a worm to a toad, a toad to a snake, a snake to a pig, a pig to a man, and a man to a worm.
15. Envelope, n. The coffin of a document; the scabbard of a bill; the husk of a remittance; the bed-gown of a love-letter.
16. Famous, adj. Conspicuously miserable.
17. Future, n. That period of time in which our affairs prosper, our friends are true, and our happiness is assured.
18. Habit, n. A shackle for the free
19. History, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.
20. Hope, n. Desire and expectation rolled into one.
21. Imagination, n. A warehouse of facts, with poet and liar in joint ownership.
22. Ink, n. A villainous compound…chiefly used to facilitate the infection of idiocy and promote intellectual crime. The properties of ink are peculiar and contradictory: it may be used to make reputations and unmake them; to blacken them and to make them white.
23. Life, n. A spiritual pickle preserving the body from decay.
24. Logic, n. The art of thinking and reasoning in strict accordance with the limitations and incapacities of human misunderstanding.
25. Mad, adj. Affected with a high degree of intellectual independence; not conforming to standards of thought, speech and action…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.
26. Man, n. An animal so lost in rapturous contemplation of what he thinks he is as to overlook what he indubitably ought to be.
27. Money, n. A blessing that is of no advantage to us excepting when we part with it.
28. Noise, n. A stench in the ear. Undomesticated music. The chief product and authenticating sign of civilization.
29. Perseverance, n. A lowly virtue whereby mediocrity achieves an inglorious success.
30. Politeness, n. The most acceptable hypocrisy.
31. Resident, adj. Unable to leave.
32. Road, n. A strip of land along which one may pass from where it is too tiresome to be to where it is too futile to go.
33. Rumor, n. A favorite weapon of the assassins of character.
34. Sauce, n. The one infallible sign of civilization and enlightenment. A people with no sauces has one thousand vices; a people with one sauce has nine hundred and ninety-nine. For every sauce invented and accepted, a vice is renounced and forgiven.
35. Selfish, adj. Devoid of consideration for the selfishness of others.
36. Telephone, n. An invention of the devil which abrogates some of the advantages of making a disagreeable person keep his distance.
37. Year, n. A period of three hundred and sixty-five disappointments.