For those not familiar with Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce, here’s a link his Wikipedia biography. This genius of satire was a prolific writer, but The Devil’s Dictionary is considered to be one of his best works and has been called one of “The 100 Greatest Masterpieces of American Literature”.
Although a link to the full text is included above, here are a few excerpts to whet your appetite, starting with Bierce’s own 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.
ABORIGINIES, n. Persons of little worth found cumbering the soil of a newly discovered country. They soon cease to cumber; they fertilize.
ADMIRATION, n. Our polite recognition of another’s resemblance to ourselves.
CHRISTIAN, n. One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor. One who follows the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.
CONVENT, n. A place of retirement for woman who wish for leisure to meditate upon the vice of idleness.
DEBT, n. An ingenious substitute for the chain and whip of the slave-driver.
EVANGELIST, n. A bearer of good tidings, particularly (in a religious sense) such as assure us of our own salvation and the damnation of our neighbors.
FAITH, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.
FRIENDSHIP, n. A ship big enough to carry two in fair weather, but only one in foul.
GUILLOTINE, n. A machine which makes a Frenchman shrug his shoulders with good reason.
HAPPINESS, n. An agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another.
HISTORY, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.
IRRELIGION, n. The principal one of the great faiths of the world.
KORAN, n. A book which the Mohammedans foolishly believe to have been written by divine inspiration, but which Christians know to be a wicked imposture, contradictory to the Holy Scriptures.
LAWYER, n. One skilled in circumvention of the law.
LIBERTY, n. One of Imagination’s most precious possessions.
MIND, n. A mysterious form of matter secreted by the brain. Its chief activity consists in the endeavor to ascertain its own nature, the futility of the attempt being due to the fact that it has nothing but itself to know itself with.
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.
OBLIVION, n. 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 place where ambitious authors meet their works without pride and their betters without envy. A dormitory without an alarm clock.
OPTIMIST, n. A proponent of the doctrine that black is white.
PAST, n. That part of Eternity with some small fraction of which we have a slight and regrettable acquaintance. A moving line called the Present parts it from an imaginary period known as the Future.
PREJUDICE, n. A vagrant opinion without visible means of support.
SAINT, n. A dead sinner revised and edited.
SCRIPTURES, n. The sacred books of our holy religion, as distinguished from the false and profane writings on which all other faiths are based.
SELFISH, adj. Devoid of consideration for the selfishness of others.