Tag Archives: The Devil’s Dictionary

The Devil’s Dictionary (14)

Some definitions of human characteristics from the pen of Ambrose Bierce and published in his The Devil’s Dictionary, published in book form in 1906.

Self-esteem, he wrote, is “an erroneous appraisement”. This may seem to you to be self-evident but that is because it is “evident to oneself and to no one else”. To be selfish is to be “devoid of consideration for the selfishness of others”.

Tenacity is “a certain quality of the human hand in its relation to the coin of the realm. It attains its highest development in the hand of authority and is considered a serviceable equipment for a career in politics”.

A teetotaller is “one who abstains from strong drink, sometimes totally, sometimes tolerably totally”.To be truthful is to be “dumb and illiterate”. Perhaps explaining why Bierce could define ugliness as “a gift of the gods to certain women, entailing virtue without humility”.

Those who resort to an ultimatum should recognise that it is “in diplomacy, a last demand before resorting to concession”.

Vanity is “the tribute of a fool to the worth of the nearest ass” while virtues are “certain abstentions”.

Youth, he defines, is “the Period of Possibility when Archimedes finds a fulcrum, Cassandra has a following, and seven cities compete for the honour of endowing a living to Homer”, where zeal may manifest itself. Remember, he characterises it as “a certain nervous disorder afflicting the young and inexperienced. A passion that goeth before a sprawl”. Indeed.

The Devil’s Dictionary (13)

I like to think that I am rational, although having read Ambrose Bierce’s definition in his The Devil’s Dictionary, first published in book form in 1906, I may have to reconsider. He calls it “devoid of all delusions save those of observation, experience, and reflection”. To reason is “to weigh probabilities in the scales of desire” and as a noun reason is “the propensitate of prejudice”, while someone who is reasonable is “accessible to the infection of our own opinions”.

Here in Britain we have had some experience of the referendum. Perhaps we should have taken some notice of Bierce who defined one as “a law for submission of proposed legislation to a popular vote to learn the nonsensus of public opinion”. The outcome may cause a period of reflection, “an action of the mind whereby we obtain a clearer view of our relation to things of yesterday and are able to avoid the perils that we shall not again encounter”, and will provide a reporter, “a writer who guesses his way to the truth and dispels it with a torrent of words” much to chew over.

Religion may not offer salvation, “a daughter of Hope and Fear explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable”. There may not even be comfort to be had in a reliquary, “a receptacle for such sacred objects as pieces of the true cross, short ribs of the saints, the ears of Balaam’s ass, the lung of the cock that called Peter to repentance, and so forth. Reliquaries are commonly of metal, and provided with a lock to prevent the contents from coming out and performing miracles at unseasonable times”.

Perhaps all that is left is repentance, “the faithful follower and attendant of Punishment” or reparation,satisfaction that is made for a wrong and deducted from the satisfaction felt in committing it”.

The Devil’s Dictionary (12)

I have always tended towards pessimism on the basis that I will never be disappointed. Ambrose Bierce in his The Devil’s Dictionary, first published in book form in 1906, defined pessimism as “a philosophy forced upon the convictions of the observer by the disheartening prevalence of the optimist with his scarecrow hope and his unsightly smile”, part of a philosophy, which is “a route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing”.

A physician may be someone “upon whom we set our hopes when ill and our dogs when well”, but Bierce reserves his characteristic scorn and scepticism for those practicing on the edge of scientific acceptability. Phrenology he defines as “the science of picking the pocket through the scalp, It consists in locating and exploiting the organ that one is a dupe with”. Physiognomy, meanwhile, is“the art of determining the character of another by the resemblances and differences between his face and our own, which is the standard of excellence”.

From this distance it is always interesting to see how cutting-edge technology then was viewed. Bierce, of course, is willing to oblige. A photograph is “a picture painted by the sun without instruction in art” while a phonograph is “an irritating toy that restores life to dead noises”. I’m sure they will never catch on!

Still, the latter may be better than a piano. Bierce defines one as “a parlour utensil for subduing the impenitent visitor. It is operated by depressing the keys of the machine and the spirits of the audience”. Quite!

The Devil’s Dictionary (11)

Money, according to Ambrose Bierce in his The Devil’s Dictionary, first published in book form in 1906, is “a blessing that is of no advantage to us excepting when we part with it. An evidence of culture and a passport to polite society”. A mouth, meanwhile, is “in man, the gateway to the soul; in woman, the outlet of the heart”.

An opportunity is “a favourable occasion for grasping a disappointment”. It may provoke someone to oppose, “to assist with obstructions and objections”.  If you persist, there will be an outcome, “a particular type of disappointment. By the kind of intelligence that sees in an exception a proof of the rule the wisdom of an act is judged by the outcome, the result. This is immortal nonsense; the wisdom of an act is to be judged by the light the does had when he performed it”.  

You may want to consign a disaster to oblivion, the state or condition in which the wicked cease from struggling and the dreary are at rest. Fame’s eternal dumping ground. Cold storage for high hopes. A dormitory without an alarm clock”.  

It may all lead to a request for pardon, which if granted is “to remit a penalty and to restore to a life of crime. To add to the lure of crime the temptation of ingratitude”.

Bierce is bold enough to correct the great Dr Samuel Johnson. In his definition of patriotism, Bierce calls it “combustible rubbish ready to the torch of anyone 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”. Quite.

The Devil’s Dictionary (10)

What is madness? To be mad, according to Ambrose Bierce in his The Devil’s Dictionary of 1906, is to be “affected by 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”.  

Madness, of course, is an attribute of the mind. This is “a mysterious form of matter secreted by the brain. Its chief activity consists in the endeavour to ascertain it own nature, the futility of the attempt being due to the fact that it has nothing but itself to know itself with”.

I find something attractive about these two definitions and the accompanying explanation. Magnet: “something acted upon by magnetism” and magnetism: “something acting upon a magnet”. “The two definitions immediately foregoing are condensed from the works of one thousand eminent scientists, who have illuminated the subject with great white light, to the inexpressible advancement of human knowledge”.

Man, Bierce defines, is “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 then whole habitable world and Canada”. No change there, then.