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Ambrose Bierce’s Devilish Definitions

July 2024
2min read

“Wit stabs, begs pardon—and turns the weapon in the wound."

“Wit stabs, begs pardon—and turns the weapon in the wound,” Ambrose Bierce once wrote, succinctly explaining his own, often black, type of humor. This American satirist originally wrote his Devil’s Dictionary in installments, as columns in various San Francisco magazines (luring the late nineteenth century. First brought together in book form in 1906, the sardonic lexicon has become an American classic. Only recently was it discovered that about half the definitions Bierce originally wrote have never been included in any edition of the book, presumably because he compiled the material, years after writing it, from incomplete files. Ernest J. Hopkins has now assembled the missing definitions, and Doubleday & Company will bring out later this month the first complete collection, to be called The Enlarged Devil’s Dictionary. AMERICAN HERITAGE, impressed with the durability of Bierce’s demonic wit, presents a sampling of the new material.


Adam’s apple, n. A protuberance in the throat of man, thoughtfully provided by Nature to keep the rope in place.

affectionate, adj. Addicted to being a nuisance. The most affectionate creature in the world is a wet dog.

ardor, n. The quality that distinguishes love without knowledge.

He loved her with an ardor—

Such a hot one,

That her father had to guard her

With a shotgun.—Ovid

bachelor, n. A man whom women are still sampling.

bequeath, v.t. To generously give to another that which can no longer be denied to somebody.

betrothed, p.p. The condition of a man and woman who, pleasing to one another and objectionable to their friends, are anxious to propitiate society by becoming unendurable to each other.

biography, n. The literary tribute that a little man pays to a big one.

Buddhism, n. A preposterous form of religious error perversely preferred by about three-fourths of the human race. …

circumlocution, n. A literary trick whereby the writer who has nothing to say breaks it gently to the reader.

coquette, n. A vain, foolish and stupid girl who after a pretty thorough sampling of oneself prefers another.

coroner, n. (Latin, corona , a crown; the pronunciation “crowner” is therefore legitimate.) A municipal officer charged with the duty of cutting up the unfortunate to see if they are dead. They always are.

courtship, n. The timid sipping of two thirsty souls from a goblet which both can easily drain but neither replenish.

dandle, v.t. To set an unresisting child upon one’s knee and jolt its teeth loose in a transport of affection. A grown girl may be similarly outraged, but her teeth being more firmly secure, there can be no object in doing so. …

defendant, n. In law, an obliging person who devotes his time and character to preserving property for his lawyer.

dentist, n. A prestidigitator, who puts metal into your mouth and pulls coins out of your pocket.

deposit, n. A charitable contribution to the support of a bank.

depraved, p.p. The moral condition of a gentleman who holds the opposite opinion.

desertion, n. An aversion to fighting, as exhibited by abandoning an army or a wife.

deshabille, n. A reception costume for intimate friends varying according to locality, e.g. , in Borrioboola Gha, a streak of red and yellow paint across the thorax. In San Francisco, pearl ear-rings and a smile.

divorce, n. A resumption of diplomatic relations and rectification of boundaries.

fault, n. One of my offenses, as distinguished from one of yours, the latter being crimes.

forbidden, p.p. Invested with a new and irresistible charm.

governor, n. An aspirant to the United States Senate.

gratitude, n. A sentiment lying midway between a benefit received and a benefit expected.

haughty, adj. Proud and disdainful, like a waiter.

hedgehog, n. The cactus of the animal kingdom.

hireling, n. A mercenary wretch who serves another person for wages, as distinguished from the respectable functionary who receives a salary.

homesick, adj. Dead broke abroad.

hunger, n. A peculiar disease afflicting all classes of mankind and commonly treated by dieting. It is observed that those who live in fine houses have it the lightest. This information is useful to chronic sufferers.

reservation, n. A place where wicked Indians are taught the Christian virtues.

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