The Devil’s Dictionary


Ambrose Bierce

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eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

Table of Contents

Author’s Preface

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Author’s Preface

The Devil’s Dictionary was begun in a weekly paper in 1881, and was continued in a desultory way at long intervals until 1906. In that year a large part of it was published in covers with the title The Cynic’s Word Book, a name which the author had not the power to reject or happiness to approve. To quote the publishers of the present work:

“This more reverent title had previously been forced upon him by the religious scruples of the last newspaper in which a part of the work had appeared, with the natural consequence that when it came out in covers the country already had been flooded by its imitators with a score of ‘cynic’ books —The Cynic’s This, The Cynic’s That, and The Cynic’s t’Other. Most of these books were merely stupid, though some of them added the distinction of silliness. Among them, they brought the word ‘cynic’ into disfavor so deep that any book bearing it was discredited in advance of publication.”

Meantime, too, some of the enterprising humorists of the country had helped themselves to such parts of the work as served their needs, and many of its definitions, anecdotes, phrases and so forth, had become more or less current in popular speech. This explanation is made, not with any pride of priority in trifles, but in simple denial of possible charges of plagiarism, which is no trifle. In merely resuming his own the author hopes to be held guiltless by those to whom the work is addressed — enlightened souls who prefer dry wines to sweet, sense to sentiment, wit to humor and clean English to slang.

A conspicuous, and it is hoped not unpleasant, feature of the book is its abundant illustrative quotations from eminent poets, chief of whom is that learned and ingenius cleric, Father Gassalasca Jape, S.J., whose lines bear his initials. To Father Jape’s kindly encouragement and assistance the author of the prose text is greatly indebted.

A.B.

A

B

C

D

E

F

G

H

I

I is the first letter of the alphabet, the first word of the language, the first thought of the mind, the first object of affection. In grammar it is a pronoun of the first person and singular number. Its plural is said to be We, but how there can be more than one myself is doubtless clearer the grammarians than it is to the author of this incomparable dictionary. Conception of two myselfs is difficult, but fine. The frank yet graceful use of “I” distinguishes a good writer from a bad; the latter carries it with the manner of a thief trying to cloak his loot.

J

J is a consonant in English, but some nations use it as a vowel — than which nothing could be more absurd. Its original form, which has been but slightly modified, was that of the tail of a subdued dog, and it was not a letter but a character, standing for a Latin verb, jacere, “to throw,” because when a stone is thrown at a dog the dog’s tail assumes that shape. This is the origin of the letter, as expounded by the renowned Dr. Jocolpus Bumer, of the University of Belgrade, who established his conclusions on the subject in a work of three quarto volumes and committed suicide on being reminded that the j in the Roman alphabet had originally no curl.

K

K is a consonant that we get from the Greeks, but it can be traced away back beyond them to the Cerathians, a small commercial nation inhabiting the peninsula of Smero. In their tongue it was called Klatch, which means “destroyed.” The form of the letter was originally precisely that of our H, but the erudite Dr. Snedeker explains that it was altered to its present shape to commemorate the destruction of the great temple of Jarute by an earthquake, circa 730 B.C. This building was famous for the two lofty columns of its portico, one of which was broken in half by the catastrophe, the other remaining intact. As the earlier form of the letter is supposed to have been suggested by these pillars, so, it is thought by the great antiquary, its later was adopted as a simple and natural — not to say touching — means of keeping the calamity ever in the national memory. It is not known if the name of the letter was altered as an additional mnemonic, or if the name was always Klatch and the destruction one of nature’s puns. As each theory seems probable enough, I see no objection to believing both — and Dr. Snedeker arrayed himself on that side of the question.

L

M

N

O

P

Q

R

S

T

T, the twentieth letter of the English alphabet, was by the Greeks absurdly called tau. In the alphabet whence ours comes it had the form of the rude corkscrew of the period, and when it stood alone (which was more than the Phoenicians could always do) signified Tallegal, translated by the learned Dr. Brownrigg, “tanglefoot.”

U

V

W

W (double U) has, of all the letters in our alphabet, the only cumbrous name, the names of the others being monosyllabic. This advantage of the Roman alphabet over the Grecian is the more valued after audibly spelling out some simple Greek word, like epixoriambikos. Still, it is now thought by the learned that other agencies than the difference of the two alphabets may have been concerned in the decline of “the glory that was Greece” and the rise of “the grandeur that was Rome.” There can be no doubt, however, that by simplifying the name of W (calling it “wow,” for example) our civilization could be, if not promoted, at least better endured.

X

X in our alphabet being a needless letter has an added invincibility to the attacks of the spelling reformers, and like them, will doubtless last as long as the language. X is the sacred symbol of ten dollars, and in such words as Xmas, Xn, etc., stands for Christ, not, as is popular supposed, because it represents a cross, but because the corresponding letter in the Greek alphabet is the initial of his name —Xristos. If it represented a cross it would stand for St. Andrew, who “testified” upon one of that shape. In the algebra of psychology x stands for Woman’s mind. Words beginning with X are Grecian and will not be defined in this standard English dictionary.

Y

Z

This web edition published by:

eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005