The Devil’s Dictionary: You Keep Using That Word, I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

(OMG LOL by Michael Mandberg | Photo by See-Ming Lee)

(OMG LOL by Michael Mandberg | Photo by See-Ming Lee)

“APOLOGIZE, v. To lay the foundation for a future offence.”

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

In 1906, celebrated storyteller, journalist, and sharp-witted cynic Ambrose Bierce published what is now known as The Devil’s Dictionary. The work was compiled over several decades; some of the satirical definitions are of the time, but many are timeless. For instance, "dictionary":

DICTIONARY, n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. This dictionary, however, is a most useful work.

Now, if it were only funny, it wouldn't be worth mentioning; but it's quite a beautiful piece of work and a splendid bit of what we would now call trolling. Of similar character to Mark Twain's dry, dead-pan sarcasm and the wit of The Onion, the work is thoroughly engrossing. Since being introduced to it in middle school, I have spent countless hours perusing its pages, thinking about familiar words in a new way. The way it's meant and the way it's popularly used. Sometimes I forget that Bierce was writing this over a hundred years ago. (I have a feeling Bierce would have been right at home on Twitter and other social media.) A man comically ahead of his time — or are we tragically predictable and slow? I suspect Bierce might say the latter is truer.

I wonder if what inspired Bierce to write The Devil's Dictionary, was the same frustration felt by Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride:

You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.

Here Is a List of My Favorite Words and Their Meanings:

A:

ACADEME, n. An ancient school where morality and philosophy were taught.
ACADEMY, n. A modern school where football is taught.
AMNESTY, n. The state’s magnanimity to those offenders whom it would be too expensive to punish.
APOLOGIZE, v. To lay the foundation for a future offence.
ARMOR, n. The kind of clothing worn by a man whose tailor is a blacksmith.

B:

BEHAVIOR, n. Conduct, as determined, not by principle, but by breeding.

C:

CALLOUS, adj. Gifted with great fortitude to bear the evils afflicting another.
CIRCUS, n. A place where horses, ponies and elephants are permitted to see men and women and children acting the fool.
CONGRATULATION, n. The civility of envy.
CONSULT, v. To seek another’s approval of a course already decided on.
CONTEMPT, n. The feeling of a prudent man for an enemy who is too formidable safely to be opposed.
CORPORATION, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.

D:

DAWN, n. 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 all the others who have tried it.
DIPLOMACY, n. The patriotic art of lying for one’s country.

E:

EDUCATION, n. That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.
EPITAPH, n. An inscription on a tomb, showing that virtues acquired by death have a retroactive effect.

F:

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

G - H:

HABIT, n. A shackle for the free.

I:

INHUMANITY, n. One of the signal and characteristic qualities of humanity.

J - L:

LOGIC, n. The art of thinking and reasoning in strict accordance with the limitations and incapacities of the human misunderstanding. The basic of logic is the syllogism, consisting of a major and a minor premise and a conclusion— thus:

Major Premise: Sixty men can do a piece of work sixty times as quickly as one man.
Minor Premise: One man can dig a posthole in sixty seconds; therefore —
Conclusion: Sixty men can dig a posthole in one second.

This may be called the syllogism arithmetical, in which, by combining logic and mathematics, we obtain a double certainty and are twice blessed.
LOVE, n. A temporary insanity curable by marriage.

M:

MAN, n. An animal so lost in rapturous contemplation of what he thinks he is as to overlook what he indubitably ought to be. His chief occupation is extermination of other animals and his own species, which, however, multiplies with such insistent rapidity as to infest the whole habitable earth and Canada.
MATERIAL, adj. Having an actual existence, as distinguished from an imaginary one. Important.
MIND, n. A mysterious form of matter secreted by the brain. Its chief activity consists in the endeavour to ascertain its own nature, the futility of the attempt being due to the fact that it has nothing but itself to know itself with.
MONEY, n. A blessing that is of no advantage to us excepting when we part with it.

N - O:

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

P:

PEACE, n. In international affairs, a period of cheating between two periods of fighting.
POLITENESS, n. The most acceptable hypocrisy.
POLITICS, n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.
PRESENT, n. That part of eternity dividing the domain of disappointment from the realm of hope.

Q - R:

RADICALISM, n. The conservatism of tomorrow injected into the affairs of today.
RESIDENT, adj. Unable to leave.
RUMOR, n. A favorite weapon of the assassins of character.

S:

SELFISH, adj. Devoid of consideration for the selfishness of others.

T - Z:

WAR, n. A by-product of the arts of peace.

The tricky part about satire, and why it's perplexing to so many, is because the meaning is in the subtext. It's not humorous lying, nor alternative facts, nor is it the truth, but rather satire, when done right, is ridicule that exposes truth. Like any good recipe for wit, satire is a sprinkle of "you get what you ask for," a dash of face-slap, and a spoonful of humor to help the truth go down. This is what makes humor so effective, it has us put our guards down, which is why humorists, starting from ancient times, saw humor as an important tool for transmitting truth. Because sometimes humor is the only way to transmit truth.

Useful Companions (Improve Your Education and This Site by Buying a Book):

  • I first read The Devil's Dictionary when my middle school teacher let me borrow his edition, and it has remained my favorite dictionary.
  • William Goldman wrote The Princess Bride and then he wrote the movie, and I love them both equally. It's a book I constantly return to and reference.