Selections from "Devil's Dictionary"

(Ambrose Bierce)

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.

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

NOISE, n. A stench in the ear. Undomesticated music. The chief product and authenticating sign of civilization.

HABIT, n. A shackle for the free.

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

PRESIDENT, n. The leading figure in a small group of men of whom — and of whom only — it is positively known that immense numbers of their countrymen did not want any of them for President.

CONSOLATION, n. The knowledge that a better man is more unfortunate than yourself.

PUBLISH, n. In literary affairs, to become the fundamental element in a cone of critics.

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

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

MAUSOLEUM, n. The final and funniest folly of the rich.

PICTURE, n. A representation in two dimensions of something wearisome in three.

JEALOUS, adj. Unduly concerned about the preservation of that which can be lost only if not worth keeping.

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.

MYTHOLOGY, n. The body of a primitive people's beliefs concerning its origin, early history, heroes, deities and so forth, as distinguished from the true accounts which it invents later.

HURRY, n. The dispatch of bunglers.

RAILROAD, n. The chief of many mechanical devices enabling us to get away from where we are to where we are no better off. For this purpose the railroad is held in highest favor by the optimist, for it permits him to make the transit with great expedition.

RATIONAL, adj. Devoid of all delusions save those of observation, experience and reflection.

OVERWORK, n. A dangerous disorder affecting high public functionaries who want to go fishing.

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.

SENATE, n. A body of elderly gentlemen charged with high duties and misdemeanors.

TYPE, n. Pestilent bits of metal suspected of destroying civilization and enlightenment, despite their obvious agency in this incomparable dictionary.

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.

SELFISH, adj. Devoid of consideration for the selfishness of others.

PASSPORT, n. A document treacherously inflicted upon a citizen going abroad, exposing him as an alien and pointing him out for special reprobation and outrage.

MONDAY, n. In Christian countries, the day after the baseball game.

ORATORY, n. A conspiracy between speech and action to cheat the understanding. A tyranny tempered by stenography.

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

HISTORY, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.

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

BAROMETER, n. An ingenious instrument which indicates what kind of weather we are having.

PAINTING, n. The art of protecting flat surfaces from the weather and exposing them to the critic.

NEWTONIAN, adj. Pertaining to a philosophy of the universe invented by Newton, who discovered that an apple will fall to the ground, but was unable to say why. His successors and disciples have advanced so far as to be able to say when.

HARBOR, n. A place where ships taking shelter from stores are exposed to the fury of the customs.

BAIT, n. A preparation that renders the hook more palatable. The best kind is beauty.

PIE, n. An advance agent of the reaper whose name is Indigestion.

LUMINARY, n. One who throws light upon a subject; as an editor by not writing about it.

MARRIAGE, n. The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two.

PLAN, v.t. To bother about the best method of accomplishing an accidental result.

MERCY, n. An attribute beloved of detected offenders.

LOCK-AND-KEY, n. The distinguishing device of civilization and enlightenment.

DENTIST, n. A prestidigitator who, putting metal into your mouth, pulls coins out of your pocket.

HEARSE, n. Death's baby-carriage.

IMMIGRANT, n. An unenlightened person who thinks one country better than another.

PLOW, n. An implement that cries aloud for hands accustomed to the pen.

EXILE, n. One who serves his country by residing abroad, yet is not an ambassador.

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

(You can find the full text of Bierce's work at

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