Reading Time: 12 minutes

If you are not acquainted with Ambrose Bierce, you should be.  A literary figure of the 19th Century, he is little known today, but in his time, he was admired by no less a writer than H. L. Mencken, who said that Bierce’s “The Devil’s Dictionary” was “the most brilliant stuff, first and last, that America has ever produced … the true masterpiece of the one genuine wit that These States have ever seen.”

“The Devil’s Dictionary” is a collection of sly and cynical observations of life and human nature in nineteenth century America.  As you will see, many of them could have been written today…if we had a writer of equal genius.

Like any dictionary the definitions are arranged in alphabetical order, and since we are dealing with adages and aphorisms, it seems appropriate to read what Bierce had to say about them first. Following that is a sampling of my favorites. There are many more. If you can spare an hour or so to read them all, here is a link.

Adage:  Boned wisdom for weak teeth.

Aphorism:  Predigested wisdom

The flabby wine skin of his brain

Yields to some pathologic strain,

And voids from its unstored abysm

The driblet of an aphorism.

Here are some of my favorites: [my occasional comments are in brackets]


Bait: A preparation that makes the hook more palatable.  The best kind is beauty.

Bore:  A person who talks when you wish him to listen.

Cabbage: A common garden vegetable about as large and wise as a man’s head.

Christian: 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. [he hated hypocrisy]

Conservative: A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the liberal, who wishes to replace them with others. [A hundred years ago he wrote this!]

Dawn: The time when men of reason go to bed. Certain old men prefer to rise at about that time, taking a cold bath and a long walk with an empty stomach, and otherwise mortifying the flesh.  They then point with pride to these practices as the cause of their sturdy health and ripe years; the truth being that they are hearty and old, not because of their habits, but in spite of them.  The reason we find only robust persons doing this thing is that it has killed off all the others who have tried it.  [Take that, you joggers!]

Decalogue: A series of commandments, ten in number — just enough to permit an intelligent selection for observance, but not enough to embarrass the choice. Following is the revised edition of the Decalogue, calculated for this meridian. [This is genius!]

Thou shalt no God but me adore:

     ‘Twere too expensive to have more.

     No images nor idols make

     For Robert Ingersoll* to break.

     Take not God’s name in vain; select

     A time when it will have effect.

     Work not on Sabbath days at all,

     But go to see the teams play ball.

     Honor thy parents. That creates

     For life insurance lower rates.

     Kill not, abet not those who kill;

    Thou shalt not pay thy butcher’s bill.

     Kiss not thy neighbor’s wife, unless

    Thine own thy neighbor doth caress.

     Don’t steal; thou’lt never thus compete

     Successfully in business. Cheat.

     Bear not false witness — that is low —

     But “hear ’tis rumored so and so.”

     Covet thou naught that thou hast not

     By hook or crook, or somehow, got.

* Ingersoll was a prominent atheist of the 19th century.

Dentist: A prestidigitator who, putting metal in your mouth, pulls coins out of your pocket.

Destiny: A tyrant’s authority for crime and a fool’s excuse for failure.

Die:  The singular of dice.  We seldom hear the word, because there is a prohibitory proverb, “Never say die.”  At long intervals, however, someone says: “The die is cast,” which is not true, for it is cut.  The word is found in an immortal couplet…

A cube of cheese no larger than a die

May bait the trap to catch a nibbling mie.

Diplomacy:  The patriotic art of lying for one’s country.

Discriminate: To note the particulars in which one person or thing is, if possible, more objectionable than another.

Distance: The one thing that the rich are willing for the poor to call their own, and keep.

Edible: Good to eat, and wholesome to digest, as a worm to a toad, a toad to a snake, a snake to a pig, a pig to a man, and a man to a worm.

Effect: The second of two phenomena which always occur together in the same order.  The first, called a Cause, is said to generate the other – which is no more sensible that it would be for one who has never seen a dog except in pursuit of a rabbit to declare the rabbit the cause of the dog.

Enthusiasm: A distemper of youth, curable by small doses of repentance in connection with outward applications of experience.

Envy:  Emulation adapted to the meanest capacity.

Epitaph:  An inscription on a tomb, showing that virtues acquired by death have a retroactive effect.

Evangelist:  A bearer of good tidings, particularly (in a religious sense) such as assure us of our own salvation and the damnation of our neighbors.

Exception:  A thing which takes the liberty to differ from other things of its class, as an honest man, a truthful woman, etc.  “The exception proves the rule” is an expression constantly upon the lips of the ignorant, who parrot it from one another with never a thought of its absurdity.  In the Latin, “Exceptio probat regulum” means that the exception tests the rule, puts it to the proof, not confirms it.  The malefactor who drew the meaning from this excellent dictum and substituted a contrary one of his own exerted an evil power which appears to be immortal.

Exhort:  In religious affairs, to put the conscience of another upon the spit and roast it to a nut-brown discomfort.

Experience:  The wisdom that enables us to recognize as an undesirable old acquaintance the folly that we have already embraced.

Faith:  Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel. [one of my favorites]

Fashion:  A despot whom the wise ridicule and obey.

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

Finance:  The art or science of managing revenues and resources for the best advantage of the manager.  The pronunciation of this word with the ‘i’ long and the accent on the first syllable is one of America’s most precious discoveries and possessions.

Folly:  That “gift and faculty divine” whose creative and controlling energy inspires Man’s mind, guides his actions and adorns his life.

Fork:  An instrument used chiefly for the purpose of putting dead animals into the mouth.

Freedom:  A political condition that every nation supposes itself to enjoy in virtual monopoly.  Liberty.  The distinction between freedom and liberty is not accurately known; naturalists have never been able to find a living specimen of either.

Friendless:  Having no favors to bestow.  Destitute of fortune.  Addicted to utterance of truth and common sense.

Funeral:  A pageant whereby we attest our respect for the dead by enriching the undertaker, and strengthen our grief by an expenditure that deepens our groans and doubles our tears.

Generous:  Originally this word meant noble by birth and was rightly applied to a great multitude of persons.  It now means noble by nature and is taking a bit of a rest.

Gravitation:  The tendency of all bodies to approach one another with a strength proportioned to the quantity of matter they contain—the quantity of matter they contain being ascertained by the strength of their tendency to approach one another.  This is a lovely and edifying illustration of how science, having made A the proof of B, makes B the proof of A. [take that, you scientists!]

Guillotine:  A machine which makes a Frenchman shrug his shoulders with good reason.

Gunpowder:  An agency employed by civilized nations for the settlement of disputes which might become troublesome if left unadjusted. [but better than nukes]

Habit:  A shackle for the free.

Hand:  A singular instrument worn at the end of a human arm and commonly thrust into somebody’s pocket.

Handkerchief:  A small square of silk or linen, used in various ignoble offices about the face and especially serviceable at funerals to conceal the lack of tears.

Heathen:  A benighted creature who has the folly to worship something that he can see and feel.

Heaven:  A place where the wicked cease from troubling you with talk of their personal affairs, and the good listen with attention while you expound on your own. [Amen!]

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

Hurry:  The dispatch of bunglers.

Hypocrite:  One who, professing virtues that he does not respect, secures the advantage of seeming to be what he despises.

Idiot:  A member of a large and powerful tribe whose influence in human affairs has always been dominant and controlling.

Ignoramus:  A person unacquainted with certain kinds of knowledge familiar to yourself, and having certain other kinds that you know nothing about.

Imagination:  A warehouse of facts, with poet and liar in joint ownership.

Immigrant:  An unenlightened person who thinks one country better than another.

Immodest:  Having a strong sense of one’s own merit, coupled with a feeble conception of the worth of others.

Immoral:  Inexpedient.  Whatever in the long run and with regard to the greater number of instances men find to be generally inexpedient comes to be considered wrong, wicked, immoral.  If man’s notions of right and wrong have any other basis than this of expediency, if they originated, or could have originated, in any other way; if actions have in themselves a moral character apart from and nowise dependent on, their consequences—then all philosophy is a lie and reason a disorder of the mind. [I invite comments on this.]


A toy which people cry for,

And on their knees apply for,

Dispute, contend and lie for,

And if allowed

Would be right proud

Eternally to die for.

Impartial:  Unable to perceive any promise of personal advantage from espousing either side of a controversy or adopting either of two conflicting opinions.

Impiety:  Your irreverence toward my deity.

Income:  The natural and rational gauge and measure of respectability, the commonly accepted standards being artificial, arbitrary and fallacious.

Infidel:  In New York, one who does not believe in the Christian religion; in Constantinople, one who does. [in other words, we are all infidels…somewhere.]

Influence:  In politics, a visionary quo given in exchange for a substantial quid.

Injustice:  A burden which of all those that we load upon others and carry ourselves is lightest in the hands and heaviest upon the back.

Insurance:  An ingenious modern game of chance in which the player is permitted to enjoy the comfortable conviction that he is beating the man who keeps the table.

Jealous:  Unduly concerned about the preservation of that which can be lost only if not worth keeping.

Labor:  One of the process by which A acquires property for B. [and rightly so, Republicans would say.]

Lawyer:  One skilled in circumvention of the law.

Life:  A spiritual pickle preserving the body from decay.

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

Love:  A temporary insanity curable by marriage.

Machination:  The method employed by one’s opponents in baffling one’s open and honorable efforts to do the right thing.

Mad:  Affected with 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.

Magic:  The art of converting superstition into coin.  There are other arts serving the same high purpose, but the discreet lexicographer does not name them.

Male:  A member of the unconsidered, or negligible sex.

Malefactor:  The chief factor in the progress of the human race.

Mammon:  The god of the world’s leading religion.  His chief temple is in the holy city of New York.

Man:  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 the whole habitable earth and Canada. [A hundred years ago he saw the problem.]

Manicheism:  The ancient Persian doctrine of an incessant warfare between Good and Evil.  When Good gave up the fight the Persians joined the victorious Opposition.

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

Mayonnaise:  One of the sauces which serve the French in place of a state religion.

Me:  The objectionable case of I.  The personal pronoun in English has three cases, the dominative, the objectionable and the oppressive.  Each is all three.

Merchant:  One engaged in a commercial pursuit.  A commercial pursuit is one in which the thing being pursued is a dollar.

Mind:  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.

Misfortune:  The kind of fortune that never misses.

Monday:  In Christian countries, the day after the baseball game.

Money:  A blessing that is of no advantage to us excepting when we part with it.

Moral:  Conforming to a local and mutable standard of right.  Having the quality of general expediency.

Mouse:  An animal which strews its path with fainting women.

Mythology:  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. [like the Bible]

Neighbor:  One whom we are commanded to love as ourselves, and who does all he knows how to make us disobedient.

Noise:  A stench in the ear.  Undomesticated music.  The chief product and authenticating sign of civilization.

Nonsense:  The objections that are urged against this excellent dictionary.

Oath:  In law, a solemn appeal to the Deity, made binding upon the conscience by a penalty for perjury.

Ocean:  A body of water occupying about two-thirds of a world made for man—who has no gills. [but God has his reasons…]

Oyster:  A slimy, gobby shellfish which civilization gives men the hardihood to eat without removing its entrails!

Painting:  The art of protecting flat surfaces from the weather and exposing them to the critic.  Formerly, painting and sculpture were combined in the same work; the ancients painted their statues.  The only present alliance between the two arts is that the modern painter chisels his patrons.

Pedigree:  The known part of the route from an arboreal ancestor with a swim bladder to an urban descendant with a cigarette.

Perseverance:  A lowly virtue whereby mediocrity achieves an inglorious success.

Philanthropist:  A rich (and usually bald) old gentleman who has trained himself to grin while his conscience is picking his pocket.

Philosophy:  A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.

Piety: Reverence for the Supreme Being, based upon His supposed resemblance to man.

The pig is taught by sermons and epistles

To think the God of Swine has snout and bristles.

Politics:  A Strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles.  The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.

Positive:  Mistaken at the top of one’s voice.

Pray:  To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner, confessedly unworthy. [one of my favorites]

Prejudice:  A vagrant opinion without visible means of support.

Present:  That part of eternity dividing the domain of disappointment from the realm of hope.

Prophecy:  The art and practice of selling one’s credibility for future delivery.

Rabble:  In a republic, those who exercise a supreme authority tempered by fraudulent elections. [Ambrose obviously knew about gerrymandering.]

Rational:  Devoid of all delusions save those of observation, experience and reflection.

Reasonable: Accessible to the infection of our own opinions.  Hospitable to persuasion, dissuasion and evasion.

Referendum:  A law for submission of proposed legislation to a popular vote to learn the nonsensus of public opinion.

Religion:  A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable. [This one should have been carved in a stone tablet and handed to Moses.]

Resolute:  Obstinate in a course that we approve.

Responsibility:  A detachable burden easily shifted to the shoulders of God, Fate, Fortune, Luck or one’s neighbor.  In the days of astrology, it was customary to unload it upon a star.

Retaliation:  The natural rock upon which is reared the Temple of Law.

Revelation:  A famous book in which St. John the Divine concealed all that he knew.  The revealing is done by the commentators, who know nothing.

Reverence:  The spiritual attitude of a man to a god and a dog to a man.

Rum:  Generally, fiery liquors that produce madness in total abstainers.

Sabbath:  A weekly festival having its origin in the fact that God made the world in six days and was arrested on the seventh.

Saint:  A dead sinner, revised and edited.

Satan:  One of the Creator’s lamentable mistakes, repented in sackcloth and axes.  Being instated as an archangel, Satan made himself multifariously objectionable and was finally expelled from Heaven.  Halfway in his descent he paused, bent his head in thought a moment and at last went back.

“There is one favor that I should like to ask,” said he.

“Name it.”

“Man, I understand is about to be created.  He will need laws.”

“What, wretch!  You his appointed adversary, charged from the dawn of eternity with hatred of his soul—you ask for the right to make his laws?’

“Pardon;  what I have to ask is that he be permitted to make them himself.”

It was so ordered.

Scriptures:  The sacred books of our holy religion, as distinguished from the false and profane writings on which all other faiths are based. [Yup. Just ask any Christian. Or Muslim. Or….]

Self esteem:  An erroneous appraisement.

Self-evident:  Evident to ones’ self and to nobody else.

Selfish:  Devoid of the consideration for the selfishness of others.

Senate:  A body of elderly gentlemen charged with high duties and misdemeanors.

Teetotaler:  One who abstains from strong drink, sometimes totally, sometimes tolerably totally.

Telephone:  An invention of the devil which abrogates some of the advantages of making a disagreeable person keep his distance.

Turkey:  A large bird whose flesh when eaten on certain religious anniversaries has the peculiar property of attesting piety and gratitude.  Incidentally, it is pretty good eating.

Ultimatum:  In diplomacy, a last demand before resorting to concessions.

Vote:  The instrument and symbol of a freeman’s power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country. [If Ambrose were here today, he would be nodding]

Weather:  A permanent topic of conversation among persons whom it does not interest, but who have inherited the tendency to chatter about it from naked arboreal ancestors whom it keenly concerned.

Wheat:  A cereal from which a tolerably good whiskey can with some difficulty be made, and which is used also for bread.  The French are said to eat more bread per capita of population than any other people, which is natural, for only they know how to make the stuff palatable.

Wit:  The salt with which the American humorist spoils his intellectual cookery by leaving it out.

Woman:  An animal usually living in the vicinity of Man, and having a rudimentary susceptibility to domestication.

Worship:  Homo Creator’s testimony to the sound construction and fine finish of Deus Creatus.  A popular form of abjection, having an element of pride.

Go read the rest!


Bert Bigelow is a trained engineer who pursued a career in software design. Now retired, he enjoys writing short essays on many subjects but mainly focuses on politics and religion and the intersection...