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According to Ambrose

(157 entries, updated September, 2007)

Ambrose Bierce was an American author, editor, columnist, journalist and mapmaker, one of 13 children, who fought in the American Civil War, and died mysteriously almost fifty years later in the Mexican Revolution. Why does a quotations collection begin with a history lesson? Among Bierce's many writings was a slim volume originally titled The Cynic's Word Book, a collection of cynically humorous definintions of common words, each dripping with sarcasm or contradiction. The book, taken as a whole, was so bitter and cynical that it became re-titled as The Devil's Dictionary.

Bierce's dictionary is available online in its entirety at many locations, including Project Gutenberg. many of Bierce's definitions are included here, along with similar material adapted from other cynics, humorists, and perhaps a few realists. Two good examples are CRIMINAL, and, of course, SEX.


     - A -

  1. ACADEME, n.
    An ancient school where morality and philosophy were taught.  -- Ambrose Bierce

  2. ACADEMY, n.
    [from ACADEME] A modern school where football is taught.  -- Ambrose Bierce

  3. ACTING, n:
    The most minor of gifts and not a very high class way to earn a living. After all, Shirley Temple could do it at the age of four.  -- Katherine Hepburn

    Our polite recognition of another's resemblance to ourselves.  -- Ambrose Bierce

    An honest man sent abroad to lie for the good of his country.  -- Henry Wotton

    The art of how to waste space.  -- Philip Johnson

  7. ATHIEST, n:
    A man who has no invisible means of support.  -- John Buchan

  8.  - B -

    The second most exciting indoor sport.  -- Dick Vertlieb

  10. BATTLE, n:
    A method of untying with the teeth a political knot that will not yield to the tongue.  -- Ambrose Bierce

  11. BIRTH, n:
    The first and dirtiest of all disasters.  -- Ambrose Bierce

  12. BOUNDARY, n:
    In political geography, an imaginary line between two nations, separating the imaginary rights of one from the imaginary rights of another.  -- Ambrose Bierce

  13. BORE, n:
    A person who deprives you with solitude without providing company.  -- Gian Vincenza Cravina

  14. BOY, n:
    A noise with dirt on it.  -- Not Your Average Dictionary

  15. BUDGET, n:
    (1)An orderly system for living beyond your means.  -- Anon.

  16. BUDGET, n:
    (2)An attempt to live below your yearnings.  -- Anon.

  17. BUG, n:
    An aspect of a computer program which exists because the programmer was thinking about Jumbo Jacks or stock options when s/he wrote the program.  -- Not Your Average Dictionary

  18. BUGS, pl. n:
    Small living things that small living boys throw on small living girls.  -- Anon.

  19. BUREAUCRAT, n:
    (1) A person who cuts red tape sideways.  -- J. McCabe

  20. BUREAUCRAT, n:
    (2) A politician who has tenure.  -- Anon.

    A giant mechanism operated by pygmies.  -- Honore de Balzac.

  22. BUSINESS, n:
    The art of extracting money from another man's pocket without resorting to violence.  -- Max Amsterdam

  23.  - C -

  24. CABBAGE, n:
    A familiar kitchen-garden vegetable about as large and wise as a man's head.  -- Ambrose Bierce

  25. CAT, n:
    (1) A soft, indestructible automation provided by nature to be kicked when things go wrong in domestic circles.  -- Ambrose Bierce

  26. CAT, n:
    (2) A lapwarmer with a built-in buzzer.  -- Anon.

  27. CAPITOL, n:
    The seat of misgovernment.  -- Ambrose Bierce

  28. CELEBRITY, n:
    (1) One who is known to many persons he is glad he doesn't know.  -- H.L. Mencken

  29. CELEBRITY, n:
    (2) A person who works hard all his life to become well known, then wears dark glasses to avoid being reognized.  -- Fred Allen

  30. CENSOR, n:
    A man who knows more than he thinks you ought to.  -- Granville Hicks

  31. CHEF, n:
    Any cook who swears in French.  -- Anon.

  32. CHEMICALS, n:
    Noxious substances from which modern foods are made.  -- Anon.

  33. CHRISTIAN, n:
    (1) One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbors.  -- Ambrose Bierce

  34. CHRISTIAN, n:
    (2) A man who feels repentance on a Sunday for what he did on Saturday and is going to do on Monday.  -- Ambrose Bierce

  35. CLASSIC, adj:
    In literature, a book that everybody wants to have read but nobody wants to read.  -- Mark Twain

  36. COACH, n:
    A person who is willing to lay down your life for the good of his team.  -- Anon.

  37. COACH, n:
    A person who is willing to lay down your life for the good of his team.  -- Anon.

  38. COMMAND, n:
    In computer science, a statement presented by a human and accepted by a computer in such a manner as to make the human feel as if he is in control.  -- Anon.

  39. COMMERCE, n:
    A kind of transaction in which A plunders from B the goods of C, and for compensation B picks the pocket of D of money belonging to E.  -- Ambrose Bierce

  40. COMMITTEE, n:
    A group of the unwilling, picked from the unfit, to do the unnecessary.  -- Richard Long Harkness

  41. COMMON SENSE, n:
    The collection of prejudices acquired by the age of eighteen.  -- Albert Einstein

  42. COMPROMISE, n:
    An agreement whereby both parties get what neither of them wanted.  -- Anon.

  43. CONFERENCE, n:
    A gathering of important people who singly can do nothing, but together can decide that nothing can be done.  -- Fred Allen

  44. CONSCIENCE, n:
    The inner voice that warns us that someone may be looking.  -- H. L. Mencken

    A statesman who is enamoured of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.  -- Ambrose Bierce

    An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.  -- Ambrose Bierce

  47. COWARD, n:
    (1) One who, in a perilous emergency, thinks with his legs.  -- Ambrose Bierce

  48. COWARD, n:
    (2) A hero with wife, kids, and a mortgage.  -- Marvin Kitman

  49. CRIMINAL, n:
    A person with predatory instincts who has not sufficient capital to form a corporation.  -- Howard Scott

  50. CRITIC, n:
    One who boasts of being "hard to please" because nobody tries to please him.  -- Ambrose Bierce

  51. CYNIC, n:
    A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.  -- Ambrose Bierce

  52.  - D -

  53. DARLING, n:
    The popular form of address used in speaking to a member of the opposite sex whose name you cannot at the moment remember.  -- Oliver Herford.

  54. DAY, n:
    A period of twenty-four hours, mostly misspent.  -- Ambrose Bierce

    The act of examining one's bread to determine which side it is buttered on.  -- Ambrose Bierce

  56. DEMOCRACY, n:
    The recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half the time.  -- E.B. White

  57. DEPRESSION. n:
    A period during which we have to get along without the things our grandparents never dreamed about.  -- Anon.

  58. DESTINY, n:
    A tyrant's authority for crime and a fool's excuse for failure.  -- Ambrose Bierce

  59. DIET, n:
    The penalty for exceeding the feed limit.  -- Anon.

  60. DIPLOMACY, n:
    (1) The art of saying 'nice doggie' till you can find a rock.  -- Wynn Catlin

  61. DIPLOMACY, n:
    (2) To do and say the nastiest thing in the nicest way.  -- Isaac Goldberg

  62. DIPLOMAT, n:
    A headwaiter who is allowed to sit down occaisionally.  -- Peter Ustinov

  63. DRUG, n:
    A substance that, when injected into a guinea pig, produces a scientifc paper  -- Anon.

  64.  - E -

  65. ECONOMIST, n:
    A man who states the obvious in terms of the incomprehensible.  -- Alfred P. Knopf

  66. EDITOR, n:
    A person employed on a newspaper whose business it is to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to see that the chaff is printed.  -- Elbert Hubbard

  67. ELBONICS, n:
    The art of maneuvering for the center armrest in a theater or airplane.  -- Anon.

  68. ELEPHANT, n:
    A mouse built to government specifications.  -- Robert A. Heinlein

  69. ETIQUETTE, n:
    The little things you do that you don't want to do.  -- Anon.

  70. EXECUTIVE, n:
    A man who talks to the visitors while others are doing the work.  -- Anon.

  71. EXPERIENCE, n:
    What causes a person to make new mistakes instead of the same old ones.  -- Anon.

  72. EXPERT, n:
    (1) An ordinary man away from home giving advice.  -- Oscar Wilde

  73. EXPERT, n:
    (2) Someone who knows more and more about less and less until he knows absolutely everything about nothing.  -- Nicholas Murray Butler

  74. EXPERT, n:
    (3) A person who knows enough about what's really going on to be scared.  -- P.J. Plauger

  75. EXPERT, n:
    (4) A person who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field.  -- Niels Bohr

  76. EXPERT, n:
    (5) A person who is never in doubt but often in error.  -- Anon

  77.  - F -

  78. FACTORIAL, n: Someone's attempt to make math look exciting.
      Steven Wright

  79. FAIRY TALE, n: a horror story to prepare children for the newspapers.  -- Anon

  80. FAKIR, n: a psychologist whose charismatic data have inspired almost religious devotion in his followers, even though the sources seem to have shinnied up a rope and vanished.  -- Anon

  81. FAMOUS, adj: Conspicuously miserable.  -- Ambrose Bierce

  82. FARM, n: A hunk of land on which, if you get up early enough mornings and work late enough nights, you'll make a fortune--if you strike oil on it.  -- Jim Jordan

  83. FIDELITY, n: A virtue particular to those about to be betrayed.  -- Ambrose Bierce

  84. FOG LAMPS, n: obnoxiously bright lamps mounted on the fronts of automobiles; used on dry, clear nights to indicate that the driver's brain is in a fog.  -- Anon

  85. FUTURE, n: That period of time in which our affairs prosper, our friends are true, and our happiness is assured.  -- Ambrose Bierce

  86. FURBLING, n: Having to wander through a maze of ropes at an airport or bank, even when you are the only person in line.  -- Rich Hall

  87.  - G -

    One who traces your family history back as far as your money will go.  -- Anon.

  89. GOLF, n:
    (1) An ineffectual attempt to direct an uncontrollable sphere into an inaccessible hole with instruments ill-adapted to the purpose.  -- Winston Churchill

  90. GOLF, n:
    (2)A sport wherein one balances a ball an inch-and-a-quarter in diameter on a ball 8,000 miles in diameter, and then tries to hit the small one.  -- Anon

  91. GOSSIP, n:
    (1) The art of saying nothing in a way that leaves practically nothing unsaid.  -- Walter Winchell

  92. GOSSIP, n:
    (2) When you hear something you like about someone you don't.  -- Earl Wilson

  93.  - H -

  94. HANGOVER, n:
    A self-inflicted wound.  -- Anon

  95. HEREDITY, n:
    What a man believes in until his son begins to behave like a delinquent.  -- Anon.

  96. HOPE, n:
    The feeling you have that the feeling you have isn't permanent.  -- Jean Kerr

  97. HORSE SENSE, n:
    Stable thinking.  -- Anon

  98. HOSPITAL BED, n:
    A taxi parked with the meter running.  -- Anon

  99.  - I -

  100. IDIOT, n:
    A member of a large and powerful tribe whose influence in human affairs has always been dominant and controlling.  -- Ambrose Bierce

  101.  - J -

  102. JOURNALIST, n:
    A professional whose job it is to explain to others what it personally does not understand.  -- Lord Northcliffe

  103. JUDGE, n:
    A law student who marks his own papers.  -- H.L. Mencken

  104.  - K -

  105. KISS, n:
    A course of procedure, cunningly devised, for the mutual stoppage of conversation when words are superfluous.  -- Oliver Herford

  106.  - L -

  107. LABOR, n:
    One of the processes by which A acquires property for B.  -- Ambrose Bierce

  108. LIBERAL, n:
    (1) A conservative that has been smugged by reality.  -- Anon

  109. LIBERAL, n:
    (2) A man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.  -- Robert Frost

  110. LIFE, n:
    (1) A party jou join after it has started and leave before it's finished.  -- Elsa Maxwell

  111. LIFE, n:
    (2) The saddest thing there is, next to death.  -- Edith Wharton

  112. LITIGATION, n:
    A machine which you go into as a pig and come out of as a sausage.  -- Ambrose Bierce

  113.  - M -

  114. MARRIAGE, n:
    An institution which is popular because it combines the maximum of temptation with the minimum of opportunity.  -- George Bernard Shaw

  115. MEETING, n:
    An assembly of people coming together to decide what person or group not represented in the room must solve a problem.  -- Anon

  116. METAPHOR, n:
    A way of holding the most truth in the least space.  -- Orson Scott Card

  117. MIDDLE AGE, n:
    (1)When your age starts to show around your middleThe art of raising eyebrows instead of the roof.  -- Anon

  118. MIDDLE AGE, n:
    (2)That time of life when you'd rather not have a good time than recover from it.  -- Fletcher Henderson

  119. MIRACLE, n:
    An event described by those to whom it ws told by men who did not see it.  -- Elbert Hubbard

  120. MODERN ART, n:
    What happens when painters stop looking at girls and persuade themselves they have a better idea  -- John Ciardi

  121.  - N -

  122. NATION, n:
    A society united by its ancestry and by common hatred of its neighbors.  -- W.R. Inge

  123.  - O -

  124. OPPORTUNIST, n:
    One who goes ahead and does what you always planned to do.  -- Anon

  125. OPTIMISM, n:
    The doctrine, or belief, that everything is beautiful, including what is ugly, everything good, especially the bad, and everything right that is wrong. It is held with greatest tenacity by those most accustomed to the mischance of falling into adversity, and is most acceptably expounded with the grin that apes a smile. Being a blind faith, it is inaccessible to the light of disproof -- an intellectual disorder, yielding to no treatment but death. It is hereditary, but fortunately not contagious.  -- Ambrose Bierce

  126. ORATORY, n:
    The art of making deeo noises from the chest sound like important messages from the brain.  -- Anon

  127.  - P -

  128. PAIN, n:
    An uncomfortable frame of mind that may have a physical basis in something that is being done to the body, or may be purely mental, caused by the good fortune of another.  -- Ambrose Bierce

  129. PAINTING, n:
    The art of protecting flat surfaces from the weather and exposing them to the critic.  -- Ambrose Bierce

  130. PATRON, n:
    A customer who doesn't ask prices.  -- Anon

  131. PEACE, n:
    In international affairs, a period of cheating between two periods of fighting.  -- Ambrose Bierce

  132. PEDESTRIAN, n:
    Someone who thought there were a couple of gallons left in the tank.  -- Anon

    (1) A rich (and usually bald) old gentleman who has trained himself to grin while his conscience is picking his pocket.  -- Ambrose Bierce

    (2) One who gives away what he should give back.  -- Anon

  135. PHILOSOPHY, n:
    A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.  -- Ambrose Bierce

  136. PLATITUDE, n:
    An idea (a) that is admitted to be true by everyone, and (b) that is not true.  -- H. L. Mencken

  137. POISE, n:
    The art of raising eyebrows instead of the roof.  -- Anon

  138. POLITICS,
    n: War Without Bloodshed.  -- Mao Tse Tung

  139. PROFESSOR, n:
    (1) A person whose job is to tell students how to solve the problems of life he avoided by becoming a professor.  -- Anon

  140. PROFESSOR, n:
    (2) One who talks in someone elses sleep.  -- W. H. Auden

  141. PROPAGANDA, n:
    Baloney disguised as food for thought.  -- Cincinnati Inquirer

  142. PURITANISM, n:
    The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.  -- H.L. Mencken

  143.  - Q -

  144. QUOTATION, n:
    The act of repeating erroneously the words of another. The words erroneously repeated.  -- Ambrose Bierce

  145.  - R -

    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.  -- Ambrose Bierce

  147. ROCK 'N' ROLL, n:
    Monotony tinged with hysteria.  -- Vance packard

  148. RETRACTION, n:
    The revision of an insult to give it wider circulation.  -- Anon

  149.  - S -

  150. SATIRIST, n:
    A man who discovers unpleasant things about himself, then says them about other people.  -- Peter McArthur

  151. SCIENCE, n:An orderly arrangement of what at the moment appear to be facts.  -- Anon

  152. SEX, n:
    (1) The most fun you can have without laughing.  -- Webster's Unafraid Dictionary

  153. SEX, n:
    (2) The thing that takes up the least amount of time and causes the most amount of trouble.  -- John Barrymore

  154. SEX, n:
    (3) God's biggest joke on human beings.  -- Bette Davis

  155. SKIING, n:
    The only sport where you can spend an arm and a leg to break an arm and a leg.  -- Henry Beard

  156. SPOUSE, n:
    Someone who'll stand by you through all the trouble you wouldn't have had if you'd stayed single.  -- Anon

  157. STATESMAN, n:
    Any politician it's considered safe to name a school after.  -- Bill Vaughan

    Mysterious, sometimes bizarre, manipulations performed upon the collected data of an experiment in order to obscure the fact that the results have no generalizable meaning for humanity. Commonly, computers are used, lending an additional aura of unreality to the proceedings.  -- Anon

    (1) A person who can draw a mathematically precise line from an unwarranted assumption to a foregone conclusion.  -- Anon

    (2) Someone who can put his head in the oven and his feet in the freezer and tell you, "on average, I feel just fine."  -- Anon

  161. SUBBURBIA, n:
    A place where the developers bulldoze all of the trees -- then name the streets after them..  -- Bill Vaughan

  162. SWEATER, n:
    A garment worn by child when it's mother is feeling chilly.  -- Ambrose Bierce

  163.  - T -

  164. TACT, n:
    The art of saying nothing when there is nothing to say.  -- Anon

  165. TRUTH, n:
    (1) 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.  -- Ambrose Bierce

  166. TRUTH, n:
    (2) Something you stumble into when you think you're going somewhere else.  -- Jerry Garcia

  167. TV, cont.:
    A clever contraction derived from the words "Terrible Vaudville" - we call it a medium becasue nothing is well done.  -- Goodman Ace

  168.  - U -

  169. URBAN COWBOY, n:
    One who is typically all hat and no cow.  -- Anon

  170. USER, n:
    The word computer professionals use when they mean "idiot."  -- Dave Berry

  171.  - V -

  172. VACATION, n:
    Time off to remind employees that the business can get along without them.  -- Anon

  173. VIRUS, n:
    A Latin medical term meaning, 'your guess is as good as mine.'  -- Anon.

  174.  - W -

  175. WAR, n:
    (1) A by-product of the arts of peace  -- Ambrose Bierce

  176. WAR, n:
    (2) Politics with blood.  -- Mao Tse Tung

  177. WEDDING, n:
    A necessary formality before securing a divorce.  -- John Clay

  178.  - X -

  179. XEROX, n:
    A trademark for a photocopying device that can make rapid reproductionsof human error, perfectly.  -- Merle L. Mecham

  180.  - Z -

  181. ZEAL, n:
    A certain nervous disorder afflicting the young and inexperienced.  -- Ambrose Bierce

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