The Alphabet According to Bierce


In the exultant rush of feel-good hormones due to a sudden influx of good karma, I’m feeling rather cheeky…much like Ambrose Bierce…wait, who the hell is he?!

Ambrose Bierce, a well-known American novelist and satirist, had his own way of viewing the world. A very unique way. As satirists do, Bierce knew how to tell the truth in a very tongue-in-cheek type of manner. Take his Devil’s Dictionary, for instance. It is a compendium of English words with very different meanings. Of course, one has to take these definitions with a grain of salt. Here are some favorites, a Biercian alphabet, if you will:

1. Very, adj.

A word used by an overzealous blogger with a passion for repeating words often…see, word vomit.

Wait a minute, Bierce didn’t include that word in his 1906 Dictionary…what the?…

In any case…

A is for: Ambition, n.

An overmastering desire to be vilified by enemies while living and made ridiculous by friends when dead.

B is for: Bacchus, ​n.

A convenient deity invented by the ancients as an excuse for getting drunk.

C is for: Clairvoyant, n.

A person, commonly a woman, who has the power of seeing that which is invisible to her patron, namely, that he is a blockhead.

D is for: Debt, n.

An ingenious substitute for the chain and whip of the slave- driver.

E is for: Experience, n.

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

F is for: Forgetfulness, n.

A gift of God bestowed upon debtors in compensation for their destitution of conscience.

G is for: Gallows, n.

A stage for the performance of miracle plays, in which the leading actor is translated to heaven. In this country the gallows is chiefly remarkable for the number of persons who escape it.

H is for: Hippogriff, ​n.

An animal (now extinct) which was half horse and half griffin. The griffin was itself a compound creature, half lion and half eagle. The hippogriff was actually, therefore, a one-quarter eagle, which is two dollars and fifty cents in gold. The study of zoology is full of surprises.

I is for: Interregnum, n.

The period during which a monarchical country is governed by a warm spot on the cushion of the throne. The experiment of letting the spot grow cold has commonly been attended by most unhappy results from the zeal of many worthy persons to make it warm again.

J is for: Justice, n.

A commodity which is a more or less adulterated condition the State sells to the citizen as a reward for his allegiance, taxes and personal service.

K is for: Kilt, n.

A costume sometimes worn by Scotchmen in America and Americans in Scotland.

L is for: Love, n.

A temporary insanity curable by marriage or by removal of the patient from the influences under which he incurred the disorder. This disease, like caries and many other ailments, is prevalent only among civilized races living under artificial conditions; barbarous nations breathing pure air and eating simple food enjoy immunity from its ravages. It is sometimes fatal, but more frequently to the physician than to the patient.

M is for: Maiden, n.

A young person of the unfair sex addicted to clewless conduct and views that madden to crime. The genus has a wide geographical distribution, being found wherever sought and deplored wherever found. The maiden is not altogether unpleasing to the eye, nor (without her piano and her views) insupportable to the ear, though in respect to comeliness distinctly inferior to the rainbow, and, with regard to the part of her that is audible, bleating out of the field by the canary — which, also, is more portable.

N is for: Noise, n.

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

O is for: Ocean, n.

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

P is for: Portuguese, n.pl.

A species of geese indigenous to Portugal. They are mostly without feathers and imperfectly edible, even when stuffed with garlic.

Q is for: Quiver, n.

A portable sheath in which the ancient statesman and the aboriginal lawyer carried their lighter arguments.

R is for: Riot, n.

A popular entertainment given to the military by innocent bystanders.

S is for: Sorcery, n.

The ancient prototype and forerunner of political influence. It was, however, deemed less respectable and sometimes was punished by torture and death. Augustine Nicholas relates that a poor peasant who had been accused of sorcery was put to the torture to compel a confession. After enduring a few gentle agonies the suffering simpleton admitted his guilt, but naively asked his tormentors if it were not possible to be a sorcerer without knowing it.

T is for: Tzetze (or Tsetse) fly, n.

An African insect (Glossina morsitans) whose bite is commonly regarded as nature’s most efficacious remedy for insomnia, though some patients prefer that of the American novelist (Mendax interminabilis).

U is for: Ugliness, n.

A gift of the gods to certain women, entailing virtue without humility.

V is for: Vanity, n.

The tribute of a fool to the worth of the nearest ass.

W is for: Wheat, n.

A cereal from which a tolerably good whisky 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.

X is for: well, X is…

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 is for: Yankee, n.

In Europe, an American. In the Northern States of our Union, a New Englander. In the Southern States the word is unknown. (See DAMNYANK.)

Z is for: Zeal, n.

A certain nervous disorder afflicting the young and inexperienced. A passion that goeth before a sprawl.

Honorable mentions:

Dullard, n.

A member of the reigning dynasty in letters and life. The Dullards came in with Adam, and being both numerous and sturdy have overrun the habitable world. The secret of their power is their insensibility to blows; tickle them with a bludgeon and they laugh with a platitude. The Dullards came originally from Boeotia, whence they were driven by stress of starvation, their dullness having blighted the crops. For some centuries they infested Philistia, and many of them are called Philistines to this day. In the turbulent times of the Crusades they withdrew thence and gradually overspread all Europe, occupying most of the high places in politics, art, literature, science and theology. Since a detachment of Dullards came over with the Pilgrims in the Mayflower and made a favorable report of the country, their increase by birth, immigration, and conversion has been rapid and steady. According to the most trustworthy statistics the number of adult Dullards in the United States is but little short of thirty millions, including the statisticians. The intellectual centre of the race is somewhere about Peoria, Illinois, but the New England Dullard is the most shockingly moral.

History, n.

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

Historian, n.

A broad-gauge gossip.

Epaulet, n.

An ornamented badge, serving to distinguish a military officer from the enemy — that is to say, from the officer of lower rank to whom his death would give promotion.

Friendship, n.

A ship big enough to carry two in fair weather, but only one in foul.

Geology, n.

The science of the earth’s crust — to which, doubtless, will be added that of its interior whenever a man shall come up garrulous out of a well. The geological formations of the globe already noted are catalogued thus: The Primary, or lower one, consists of rocks, bones or mired mules, gas-pipes, miners’ tools, antique statues minus the nose, Spanish doubloons and ancestors. The Secondary is largely made up of red worms and moles. The Tertiary comprises railway tracks, patent pavements, grass, snakes, mouldy boots, beer bottles, tomato cans, intoxicated citizens, garbage, anarchists, snap-dogs and fools.

Kill, v.

To create a vacancy without nominating a successor.

King, n.

A male person commonly known in America as a “crowned head,” although he never wears a crown and has usually no head to speak of.

Mustang, n.

An indocile horse of the western plains. In English society, the American wife of an English nobleman.

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