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:
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 more:
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.
Conservative: A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.
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.
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.
You can find Part 2 here.