The Devil’s Dictionary
By Ambrose Bierce
Public Domain Books
T, the twentieth letter of the English alphabet, was by the Greeks absurdly called tau. In the alphabet whence ours comes it had the form of the rude corkscrew of the period, and when it stood alone (which was more than the Phoenicians could always do) signified Tallegal, translated by the learned Dr. Brownrigg, “tanglefoot.”
TABLE D’HOTE, n. A caterer’s thrifty concession to the universal passion for irresponsibility.
Old Paunchinello, freshly wed, Took Madam P. to table, And there deliriously fed As fast as he was able.
“I dote upon good grub,” he cried, Intent upon its throatage. “Ah, yes,” said the neglected bride, “You’re in your table d’hotage.”
TAIL, n. The part of an animal’s spine that has transcended its natural limitations to set up an independent existence in a world of its own. Excepting in its foetal state, Man is without a tail, a privation of which he attests an hereditary and uneasy consciousness by the coat-skirt of the male and the train of the female, and by a marked tendency to ornament that part of his attire where the tail should be, and indubitably once was. This tendency is most observable in the female of the species, in whom the ancestral sense is strong and persistent. The tailed men described by Lord Monboddo are now generally regarded as a product of an imagination unusually susceptible to influences generated in the golden age of our pithecan past.
TAKE, v.t. To acquire, frequently by force but preferably by stealth.
TALK, v.t. To commit an indiscretion without temptation, from an impulse without purpose.
TARIFF, n. A scale of taxes on imports, designed to protect the domestic producer against the greed of his consumer.
The Enemy of Human Souls Sat grieving at the cost of coals; For Hell had been annexed of late, And was a sovereign Southern State.
“It were no more than right,” said he, “That I should get my fuel free. The duty, neither just nor wise, Compels me to economize Whereby my broilers, every one, Are execrably underdone. What would they have? although I yearn To do them nicely to a turn, I can’t afford an honest heat. This tariff makes even devils cheat! I’m ruined, and my humble trade All rascals may at will invade: Beneath my nose the public press Outdoes me in sulphureousness; The bar ingeniously applies To my undoing my own lies; My medicines the doctors use (Albeit vainly) to refuse To me my fair and rightful prey And keep their own in shape to pay; The preachers by example teach What, scorning to perform, I teach; And statesmen, aping me, all make More promises than they can break. Against such competition I Lift up a disregarded cry. Since all ignore my just complaint, By Hokey-Pokey! I’ll turn saint!" Now, the Republicans, who all Are saints, began at once to bawl Against his competition; so There was a devil of a go! They locked horns with him, tete-a-tete In acrimonious debate, Till Democrats, forlorn and lone, Had hopes of coming by their own. That evil to avert, in haste The two belligerents embraced; But since ’twere wicked to relax A tittle of the Sacred Tax, ’Twas finally agreed to grant The bold Insurgent-protestant A bounty on each soul that fell Into his ineffectual Hell.
TECHNICALITY, n. In an English court a man named Home was tried for slander in having accused his neighbor of murder. His exact words were: “Sir Thomas Holt hath taken a cleaver and stricken his cook upon the head, so that one side of the head fell upon one shoulder and the other side upon the other shoulder.” The defendant was acquitted by instruction of the court, the learned judges holding that the words did not charge murder, for they did not affirm the death of the cook, that being only an inference.
TEDIUM, n. Ennui, the state or condition of one that is bored. Many fanciful derivations of the word have been affirmed, but so high an authority as Father Jape says that it comes from a very obvious source the first words of the ancient Latin hymn Te Deum Laudamus. In this apparently natural derivation there is something that saddens.
TEETOTALER, n. One who abstains from strong drink, sometimes totally, sometimes tolerably totally.
TELEPHONE, n. An invention of the devil which abrogates some of the advantages of making a disagreeable person keep his distance.
TELESCOPE, n. A device having a relation to the eye similar to that of the telephone to the ear, enabling distant objects to plague us with a multitude of needless details. Luckily it is unprovided with a bell summoning us to the sacrifice.
TENACITY, n. A certain quality of the human hand in its relation to the coin of the realm. It attains its highest development in the hand of authority and is considered a serviceable equipment for a career in politics. The following illustrative lines were written of a Californian gentleman in high political preferment, who has passed to his accounting:
Of such tenacity his grip That nothing from his hand can slip. Well-buttered eels you may o’erwhelm In tubs of liquid slippery-elm In vain from his detaining pinch They cannot struggle half an inch! ’Tis lucky that he so is planned That breath he draws not with his hand, For if he did, so great his greed He’d draw his last with eager speed. Nay, that were well, you say. Not so He’d draw but never let it go!
THEOSOPHY, n. An ancient faith having all the certitude of religion and all the mystery of science. The modern Theosophist holds, with the Buddhists, that we live an incalculable number of times on this earth, in as many several bodies, because one life is not long enough for our complete spiritual development; that is, a single lifetime does not suffice for us to become as wise and good as we choose to wish to become. To be absolutely wise and good that is perfection; and the Theosophist is so keen-sighted as to have observed that everything desirous of improvement eventually attains perfection. Less competent observers are disposed to except cats, which seem neither wiser nor better than they were last year. The greatest and fattest of recent Theosophists was the late Madame Blavatsky, who had no cat.
TIGHTS, n. An habiliment of the stage designed to reinforce the general acclamation of the press agent with a particular publicity. Public attention was once somewhat diverted from this garment to Miss Lillian Russell’s refusal to wear it, and many were the conjectures as to her motive, the guess of Miss Pauline Hall showing a high order of ingenuity and sustained reflection. It was Miss Hall’s belief that nature had not endowed Miss Russell with beautiful legs. This theory was impossible of acceptance by the male understanding, but the conception of a faulty female leg was of so prodigious originality as to rank among the most brilliant feats of philosophical speculation! It is strange that in all the controversy regarding Miss Russell’s aversion to tights no one seems to have thought to ascribe it to what was known among the ancients as “modesty.” The nature of that sentiment is now imperfectly understood, and possibly incapable of exposition with the vocabulary that remains to us. The study of lost arts has, however, been recently revived and some of the arts themselves recovered. This is an epoch of renaissances, and there is ground for hope that the primitive “blush” may be dragged from its hiding-place amongst the tombs of antiquity and hissed on to the stage.
TOMB, n. The House of Indifference. Tombs are now by common consent invested with a certain sanctity, but when they have been long tenanted it is considered no sin to break them open and rifle them, the famous Egyptologist, Dr. Huggyns, explaining that a tomb may be innocently “glened” as soon as its occupant is done “smellynge,” the soul being then all exhaled. This reasonable view is now generally accepted by archaeologists, whereby the noble science of Curiosity has been greatly dignified.
TOPE, v. To tipple, booze, swill, soak, guzzle, lush, bib, or swig. In the individual, toping is regarded with disesteem, but toping nations are in the forefront of civilization and power. When pitted against the hard-drinking Christians the absemious Mahometans go down like grass before the scythe. In India one hundred thousand beef- eating and brandy-and-soda guzzling Britons hold in subjection two hundred and fifty million vegetarian abstainers of the same Aryan race. With what an easy grace the whisky-loving American pushed the temperate Spaniard out of his possessions! From the time when the Berserkers ravaged all the coasts of western Europe and lay drunk in every conquered port it has been the same way: everywhere the nations that drink too much are observed to fight rather well and not too righteously. Wherefore the estimable old ladies who abolished the canteen from the American army may justly boast of having materially augmented the nation’s military power.
TORTOISE, n. A creature thoughtfully created to supply occasion for the following lines by the illustrious Ambat Delaso:
TO MY PET TORTOISE
My friend, you are not graceful not at all; Your gait’s between a stagger and a sprawl.
Nor are you beautiful: your head’s a snake’s To look at, and I do not doubt it aches.
As to your feet, they’d make an angel weep. ’Tis true you take them in whene’er you sleep.
No, you’re not pretty, but you have, I own, A certain firmness mostly you’re [sic] backbone.
Firmness and strength (you have a giant’s thews) Are virtues that the great know how to use
I wish that they did not; yet, on the whole, You lack excuse my mentioning it Soul.
So, to be candid, unreserved and true, I’d rather you were I than I were you.
Perhaps, however, in a time to be, When Man’s extinct, a better world may see
Your progeny in power and control, Due to the genesis and growth of Soul.
So I salute you as a reptile grand Predestined to regenerate the land.
Father of Possibilities, O deign To accept the homage of a dying reign!
In the far region of the unforeknown I dream a tortoise upon every throne.
I see an Emperor his head withdraw Into his carapace for fear of Law;
A King who carries something else than fat, Howe’er acceptably he carries that;
A President not strenuously bent On punishment of audible dissent
Who never shot (it were a vain attack) An armed or unarmed tortoise in the back;
Subject and citizens that feel no need To make the March of Mind a wild stampede;
All progress slow, contemplative, sedate, And “Take your time” the word, in Church and State.
O Tortoise, ’tis a happy, happy dream, My glorious testudinous regime!
I wish in Eden you’d brought this about By slouching in and chasing Adam out.
TREE, n. A tall vegetable intended by nature to serve as a penal apparatus, though through a miscarriage of justice most trees bear only a negligible fruit, or none at all. When naturally fruited, the tree is a beneficient agency of civilization and an important factor in public morals. In the stern West and the sensitive South its fruit (white and black respectively) though not eaten, is agreeable to the public taste and, though not exported, profitable to the general welfare. That the legitimate relation of the tree to justice was no discovery of Judge Lynch (who, indeed, conceded it no primacy over the lamp-post and the bridge-girder) is made plain by the following passage from Morryster, who antedated him by two centuries:
While in yt londe I was carried to see ye Ghogo tree, whereof I had hearde moch talk; but sayynge yt I saw naught remarkabyll in it, ye hed manne of ye villayge where it grewe made answer as followeth: “Ye tree is not nowe in fruite, but in his seasonne you shall see dependynge fr. his braunches all soch as have affroynted ye King his Majesty." And I was furder tolde yt ye worde “Ghogo” sygnifyeth in yr tong ye same as “rapscal” in our owne.
Trauvells in ye Easte
TRIAL, n. A formal inquiry designed to prove and put upon record the blameless characters of judges, advocates and jurors. In order to effect this purpose it is necessary to supply a contrast in the person of one who is called the defendant, the prisoner, or the accused. If the contrast is made sufficiently clear this person is made to undergo such an affliction as will give the virtuous gentlemen a comfortable sense of their immunity, added to that of their worth. In our day the accused is usually a human being, or a socialist, but in mediaeval times, animals, fishes, reptiles and insects were brought to trial. A beast that had taken human life, or practiced sorcery, was duly arrested, tried and, if condemned, put to death by the public executioner. Insects ravaging grain fields, orchards or vineyards were cited to appeal by counsel before a civil tribunal, and after testimony, argument and condemnation, if they continued in contumaciam the matter was taken to a high ecclesiastical court, where they were solemnly excommunicated and anathematized. In a street of Toledo, some pigs that had wickedly run between the viceroy’s legs, upsetting him, were arrested on a warrant, tried and punished. In Naples and ass was condemned to be burned at the stake, but the sentence appears not to have been executed. D’Addosio relates from the court records many trials of pigs, bulls, horses, cocks, dogs, goats, etc., greatly, it is believed, to the betterment of their conduct and morals. In 1451 a suit was brought against the leeches infesting some ponds about Berne, and the Bishop of Lausanne, instructed by the faculty of Heidelberg University, directed that some of “the aquatic worms” be brought before the local magistracy. This was done and the leeches, both present and absent, were ordered to leave the places that they had infested within three days on pain of incurring “the malediction of God.” In the voluminous records of this cause celebre nothing is found to show whether the offenders braved the punishment, or departed forthwith out of that inhospitable jurisdiction.
TRICHINOSIS, n. The pig’s reply to proponents of porcophagy. Moses Mendlessohn having fallen ill sent for a Christian physician, who at once diagnosed the philosopher’s disorder as trichinosis, but tactfully gave it another name. “You need and immediate change of diet,” he said; “you must eat six ounces of pork every other day." “Pork?” shrieked the patient “pork? Nothing shall induce me to touch it!" “Do you mean that?” the doctor gravely asked. “I swear it!" “Good! then I will undertake to cure you.”
TRINITY, n. In the multiplex theism of certain Christian churches, three entirely distinct deities consistent with only one. Subordinate deities of the polytheistic faith, such as devils and angels, are not dowered with the power of combination, and must urge individually their clames to adoration and propitiation. The Trinity is one of the most sublime mysteries of our holy religion. In rejecting it because it is incomprehensible, Unitarians betray their inadequate sense of theological fundamentals. In religion we believe only what we do not understand, except in the instance of an intelligible doctrine that contradicts an incomprehensible one. In that case we believe the former as a part of the latter.
TROGLODYTE, n. Specifically, a cave-dweller of the paleolithic period, after the Tree and before the Flat. A famous community of troglodytes dwelt with David in the Cave of Adullam. The colony consisted of “every one that was in distress, and every one that was in debt, and every one that was discontented” in brief, all the Socialists of Judah.
TRUCE, n. Friendship.
TRUTH, n. An ingenious compound of desirability and appearance. Discovery of truth is the sole purpose of philosophy, which is the most ancient occupation of the human mind and has a fair prospect of existing with increasing activity to the end of time.
TRUTHFUL, adj. Dumb and illiterate.
TRUST, n. In American politics, a large corporation composed in greater part of thrifty working men, widows of small means, orphans in the care of guardians and the courts, with many similar malefactors and public enemies.
TURKEY, n. 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.
TWICE, adv. Once too often.
TYPE, n. Pestilent bits of metal suspected of destroying civilization and enlightenment, despite their obvious agency in this incomparable dictionary.
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).