20 Bitter Definitions from The Cynic's Word Book

The Public Domain Review
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Ambrose Bierce’s The Cynic’s Word Book could be considered one of the many precursors for snarky internet listicles. It was originally written as a series of 88 newspaper columns for The Wasp (where Bierce worked as editor-in-chief) under the title The Devil’s Dictionary. After Bierce became editor of The San Francisco Examiner in 1887, the column was retitled The Cynic’s Dictionary to please the paper’s owners. In 1906, the columns were compiled and The Cynic’s Word Book was first published.

The dictionary was never meant to be an extensive project, and the entries don’t go any further than the one for “Lord.” As Bierce writes in the preface, “As it was no part of the author's purpose to define all the words in the language, or even to make a complete alphabetical series, the stopping-place of the book was determined by considerations of bulk. ... In the event of this volume proving acceptable to that part of the reading public to which in humility it is addressed—enlightened souls who prefer dry wines to sweet, sense to sentiment, good English to slang, and wit to humor—there may possibly be another if the author be spared for the compiling.”

Apparently it was acceptable, as a second edition, this time called The Devil’s Dictionary, was published in 1911. Hopefully, these 20 bitter words are equally acceptable in 2015 as they were back then. 

1. Accordion (n.)

"An instrument in harmony with the sentiments of an assassin."

2. 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.”

3. Admiration (n.)

"Our polite recognition of another’s resemblance to ourselves."

4. Armor (n.)

"The kind of clothing worn by a man whose tailor is a blacksmith."

5. Cabbage (n.)

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

6. Circus (n.)

"A place where horses, ponies, and elephants are permitted to see men, women, and children acting the fool."

7. Clarionet (n.)

"An instrument of torture operated by a person with cotton in his ears. There are two instruments that are worse than a clarionet—two clarionets."

8. Dance (v.i.)

"To leap about to the sound of tittering music, preferably with the arms about your neighbor’s wife or daughter. There are many kinds of dances, but all those requiring the participation of the two sexes have two characteristics in common: they are conspicuously innocent, and warmly loved by the guilty."

9. Diary (n.)

"A daily record of that part of one’s life, which he can relate to himself without blushing."

10. Egotist (n.)

"A person of low taste, one who is more interested in himself than in me."

11. Famous (adj.)

"Conspicuously miserable."

12. Fiddle (n.)

"An instrument to tickle human ears by friction of a horse’s tail on the entrails of a cat."

13. Garter (n.)

"An elastic band intended to keep a woman from coming out of her stockings and desolating the country. An order of merit established by Edward III of England, and conferred upon persons who have distinguished themselves in the royal favor."

14. Grave (n.)

"A place in which the dead are laid to await the coming of the medical student."

15. Habeas Corpus

"A writ by which a man can be taken out of jail and asked how he likes it."

16. Hash (x.)

"There is no definition for this word—nobody knows what hash is."

17. Hers (pron.)


18. Humanity (n.)

"The human race, collectively, exclusive of the anthropoid poets."

19. Husband (n.)

"One who, having dined, is charged with the care of the plate."

20.Litigation (n.)

"A machine which you go into as a pig and come out of as a sausage."