AMBROSE BIERCE (1842-1913)
Public Domain Copyright
- is a consonant in English, but some nations use it as a
vowel than which nothing could be more absurd. Its
original form, which has been but slightly modified, was
that of the tail of a subdued dog, and it was not a
letter but a character, standing for a Latin verb, jacere
verb, jacere, "to throw," because when a stone
is thrown at a dog the dog's tail assumes that shape.
This is the origin of the letter, as expounded by the
renowned Dr. Jocolpus Bumer, of the University of
Belgrade, who established his conclusions on the subject
in a work of three quarto volumes and committed suicide
on being reminded that the j in the Roman alphabet had
originally no curl.
- adj. Unduly concerned about the preservation of
that which can be lost only if not worth keeping.
- n. An officer formerly attached to a king's
household, whose business it was to amuse the court by
ludicrous actions and utterances, the absurdity being
attested by his motley costume. The king himself being
attired with dignity, it took the world some centuries to
discover that his own conduct and decrees were
sufficiently ridiculous for the amusement not only of his
court but of all mankind. The jester was commonly called
a fool, but the poets and romancers have ever delighted
to represent him as a singularly wise and witty person.
In the circus of to-day the melancholy ghost of the court
fool effects the dejection of humbler audiences with the
same jests wherewith in life he gloomed the marble hall,
panged the patrician sense of humor and tapped the tank
of royal tears.
The widow-queen of Portugal
Had an audacious jester
Who entered the confessional
Disguised, and there confessed her.
"Father," she said, "thine ear bend down
My sins are more than scarlet:
I love my fool blaspheming clown,
And common, base-born varlet."
"Daughter," the mimic priest replied,
"That sin, indeed, is awful:
The church's pardon is denied
To love that is unlawful.
"But since thy stubborn heart will be
For him forever pleading,
Thou'dst better make him, by decree,
A man of birth and breeding."
She made the fool a duke, in hope
With Heaven's taboo to palter;
Then told a priest, who told the Pope,
Who damned her from the altar!
- n. An unmusical instrument, played by holding it
fast with the teeth and trying to brush it away with the
- n. Small sticks burned by the Chinese in their
pagan tomfoolery, in imitation of certain sacred rites of
our holy religion.
- n. A commodity which is a more or less
adulterated condition the State sells to the citizen as a
reward for his allegiance, taxes and personal service.
- is a consonant that we get from the Greeks, but it can be
traced away back beyond them to the Cerathians, a small
commercial nation inhabiting the peninsula of Smero. In
their tongue it was called Klatch, which means
"destroyed." The form of the letter was
originally precisely that of our H, but the erudite Dr.
Snedeker explains that it was altered to its present
shape to commemorate the destruction of the great temple
of Jarute by an earthquake, circa 730 B.C. This
building was famous for the two lofty columns of its
portico, one of which was broken in half by the
catastrophe, the other remaining intact. As the earlier
form of the letter is supposed to have been suggested by
these pillars, so, it is thought by the great antiquary,
its later was adopted as a simple and natural not
to say touching means of keeping the calamity ever
in the national memory. It is not known if the name of
the letter was altered as an additional mnemonic, or if
the name was always Klatch and the destruction one
of nature's puns. As each theory seems probable enough, I
see no objection to believing both and Dr.
Snedeker arrayed himself on that side of the question.
He willed away his whole estate,
And then in death he fell asleep,
Murmuring: "Well, at any rate,
My name unblemished I shall keep."
But when upon the tomb 'twas wrought
Whose was it? for the dead keep naught.
Durang Gophel Arn
- v.t. To create a vacancy without nominating a
- n. A costume sometimes worn by Scotchmen in
America and Americans in Scotland.
- n. A brief preface to ten volumes of exaction.
- n. A male person commonly known in America as a
"crowned head," although he never wears a crown
and has usually no head to speak of.
A king, in times long, long gone by,
Said to his lazy jester:
"If I were you and you were I
My moments merrily would fly
Nor care nor grief to pester."
"The reason, Sire, that you would thrive,"
The fool said "if you'll hear it
Is that of all the fools alive
Who own you for their sovereign, I've
The most forgiving spirit."
- KING'S EVIL
- n. A malady that was formerly cured by the touch
of the sovereign, but has now to be treated by the
physicians. Thus 'the most pious Edward" of England
used to lay his royal hand upon the ailing subjects and
make them whole
a crowd of wretched souls
That stay his cure: their malady convinces
The great essay of art; but at his touch,
Such sanctity hath Heaven given his hand,
They presently amend.
as the "Doctor" in Macbeth hath it. This useful property of the
royal hand could, it appears, be transmitted along with other crown
properties; for according to "Malcolm,"
To the succeeding royalty he leaves
The healing benediction.
But the gift somewhere dropped out of the line of succession:
the later sovereigns of England have not been tactual healers, and
the disease once honored with the name "king's evil" now bears the
humbler one of "scrofula," from scrofa, a sow. The date and author
of the following epigram are known only to the author of this
dictionary, but it is old enough to show that the jest about
Scotland's national disorder is not a thing of yesterday.
Ye Kynge his evill in me laye,
Wh. he of Scottlande charmed awaye.
He layde his hand on mine and sayd:
"Be gone!" Ye ill no longer stayd.
But O ye wofull plyght in wh.
I'm now y-pight: I have ye itche!
The superstition that maladies can be cured by royal taction is
dead, but like many a departed conviction it has left a monument of
custom to keep its memory green. The practice of forming a line
and shaking the President's hand had no other origin, and when that
great dignitary bestows his healing salutation on
strangely visited people,
All swoln and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye,
The mere despair of surgery,
he and his patients are handing along an extinguished torch which
once was kindled at the altar-fire of a faith long held by all
classes of men. It is a beautiful and edifying "survival" one
which brings the sainted past close home in our "business and bosoms."
- n. A word invented by the poets as a rhyme for
"bliss." It is supposed to signify, in a
general way, some kind of rite or ceremony appertaining
to a good understanding; but the manner of its
performance is unknown to this lexicographer.
- n. A rich thief.
Once a warrior gentle of birth,
Then a person of civic worth,
Now a fellow to move our mirth.
Warrior, person, and fellow no more:
We must knight our dogs to get any lower.
Brave Knights Kennelers then shall be,
Noble Knights of the Golden Flea,
Knights of the Order of St. Steboy,
Knights of St. Gorge and Sir Knights Jawy.
God speed the day when this knighting fad
Shall go to the dogs and the dogs go mad.
- n. A book which the Mohammedans foolishly believe
to have been written by divine inspiration, but which
Christians know to be a wicked imposture, contradictory
to the Holy Scriptures.
- n. One of the processes by which A acquires
property for B.
- n. A part of the earth's surface, considered as
property. The theory that land is property subject to
private ownership and control is the foundation of modern
society, and is eminently worthy of the superstructure.
Carried to its logical conclusion, it means that some
have the right to prevent others from living; for the
right to own implies the right exclusively to occupy; and
in fact laws of trespass are enacted wherever property in
land is recognized. It follows that if the whole area of terra
firma is owned by A, B and C, there will be no place
for D, E, F and G to be born, or, born as trespassers, to
A life on the ocean wave,
A home on the rolling deep,
For the spark the nature gave
I have there the right to keep.
They give me the cat-o'-nine
Whenever I go ashore.
Then ho! for the flashing brine
I'm a natural commodore!
- n. The music with which we charm the serpents
guarding another's treasure.
- n. A famous piece of antique scripture
representing a priest of that name and his two sons in
the folds of two enormous serpents. The skill and
diligence with which the old man and lads support the
serpents and keep them up to their work have been justly
regarded as one of the noblest artistic illustrations of
the mastery of human intelligence over brute inertia.
- n. One of the most important organs of the female
system an admirable provision of nature for the
repose of infancy, but chiefly useful in rural
festivities to support plates of cold chicken and heads
of adult males. The male of our species has a rudimentary
lap, imperfectly developed and in no way contributing to
the animal's substantial welfare.
- n. A shoemaker's implement, named by a frowning
Providence as opportunity to the maker of puns.
Ah, punster, would my lot were cast,
Where the cobbler is unknown,
So that I might forget his last
And hear your own.
- n. An interior convulsion, producing a distortion
of the features and accompanied by inarticulate noises.
It is infectious and, though intermittent, incurable.
Liability to attacks of laughter is one of the
characteristics distinguishing man from the animals
these being not only inaccessible to the
provocation of his example, but impregnable to the
microbes having original jurisdiction in bestowal of the
disease. Whether laughter could be imparted to animals by
inoculation from the human patient is a question that has
not been answered by experimentation. Dr. Meir Witchell
holds that the infection character of laughter is due to
the instantaneous fermentation of sputa diffused
in a spray. From this peculiarity he names the disorder Convulsio
- adj. Crowned with leaves of the laurel. In England
the Poet Laureate is an officer of the sovereign's court,
acting as dancing skeleton at every royal feast and
singing-mute at every royal funeral. Of all incumbents of
that high office, Robert Southey had the most notable
knack at drugging the Samson of public joy and cutting
his hair to the quick; and he had an artistic color-sense
which enabled him so to blacken a public grief as to give
it the aspect of a national crime.
- n. The laurus, a vegetable dedicated to
Apollo, and formerly defoliated to wreathe the brows of
victors and such poets as had influence at court. (Vide
Once Law was sitting on the bench,
And Mercy knelt a-weeping.
"Clear out!" he cried, "disordered wench!
Nor come before me creeping.
Upon your knees if you appear,
'Tis plain your have no standing here."
Then Justice came. His Honor cried:
"Your status? devil seize you!"
"Amica curiae," she replied
"Friend of the court, so please you."
"Begone!" he shouted "there's the door
I never saw your face before!"
- adj. Compatible with the will of a judge having
- n. One skilled in circumvention of the law.
- n. Unwarranted repose of manner in a person of low
- n. A heavy blue-gray metal much used in giving
stability to light lovers particularly to those
who love not wisely but other men's wives. Lead is also
of great service as a counterpoise to an argument of such
weight that it turns the scale of debate the wrong way.
An interesting fact in the chemistry of international
controversy is that at the point of contact of two
patriotisms lead is precipitated in great quantities.
Hail, holy Lead! of human feuds the great
And universal arbiter; endowed
With penetration to pierce any cloud
Fogging the field of controversial hate,
And with a sift, inevitable, straight,
Searching precision find the unavowed
But vital point. Thy judgment, when allowed
By the chirurgeon, settles the debate.
O useful metal! were it not for thee
We'd grapple one another's ears alway:
But when we hear thee buzzing like a bee
We, like old Muhlenberg, "care not to stay."
And when the quick have run away like pellets
Jack Satan smelts the dead to make new bullets.
- n. The kind of ignorance distinguishing the
- n. One with his hand in your pocket, his tongue in
your ear and his faith in your patience.
- n. A gift from one who is legging it out of this
vale of tears.
- adj. Unlike a menagerie lion. Leonine verses are
those in which a word in the middle of a line rhymes with
a word at the end, as in this famous passage from Bella
The electric light invades the dunnest deep of Hades.
Cries Pluto, 'twixt his snores: "O tempora! O mores!"
It should be explained that Mrs. Silcox does not undertake to
teach pronunciation of the Greek and Latin tongues. Leonine verses
are so called in honor of a poet named Leo, whom prosodists appear
to find a pleasure in believing to have been the first to discover
that a rhyming couplet could be run into a single line.
- n. An herb of the genus Lactuca,
"Wherewith," says that pious gastronome,
Hengist Pelly, "God has been pleased to reward the
good and punish the wicked. For by his inner light the
righteous man has discerned a manner of compounding for
it a dressing to the appetency whereof a multitude of
gustible condiments conspire, being reconciled and
ameliorated with profusion of oil, the entire comestible
making glad the heart of the godly and causing his face
to shine. But the person of spiritual unworth is
successfully tempted to the Adversary to eat of lettuce
with destitution of oil, mustard, egg, salt and garlic,
and with a rascal bath of vinegar polluted with sugar.
Wherefore the person of spiritual unworth suffers an
intestinal pang of strange complexity and raises the
- n. An enormous aquatic animal mentioned by Job.
Some suppose it to have been the whale, but that
distinguished ichthyologer, Dr. Jordan, of Stanford
University, maintains with considerable heat that it was
a species of gigantic Tadpole (Thaddeus Polandensis)
or Polliwig Maria pseudo-hirsuta. For an
exhaustive description and history of the Tadpole consult
the famous monograph of Jane Porter, Thaddeus of
- n. A pestilent fellow who, under the pretense of
recording some particular stage in the development of a
language, does what he can to arrest its growth, stiffen
its flexibility and mechanize its methods. For your
lexicographer, having written his dictionary, comes to be
considered "as one having authority," whereas
his function is only to make a record, not to give a law.
The natural servility of the human understanding having
invested him with judicial power, surrenders its right of
reason and submits itself to a chronicle as if it were a
statue. Let the dictionary (for example) mark a good word
as "obsolete" or "obsolescent" and
few men thereafter venture to use it, whatever their need
of it and however desirable its restoration to favor
whereby the process of impoverishment is
accelerated and speech decays. On the contrary,
recognizing the truth that language must grow by
innovation if it grow at all, makes new words and uses
the old in an unfamiliar sense, has no following and is
tartly reminded that "it isn't in the
dictionary" although down to the time of the
first lexicographer (Heaven forgive him!) no author ever
had used a word that was in the dictionary. In the golden
prime and high noon of English speech; when from the lips
of the great Elizabethans fell words that made their own
meaning and carried it in their very sound; when a
Shakespeare and a Bacon were possible, and the language
now rapidly perishing at one end and slowly renewed at
the other was in vigorous growth and hardy preservation
sweeter than honey and stronger than a lion
the lexicographer was a person unknown, the dictionary a
creation which his Creator had not created him to create.
God said: "Let Spirit perish into Form,"
And lexicographers arose, a swarm!
Thought fled and left her clothing, which they took,
And catalogued each garment in a book.
Now, from her leafy covert when she cries:
"Give me my clothes and I'll return," they rise
And scan the list, and say without compassion:
"Excuse us they are mostly out of fashion."
- n. A lawyer with a roving commission.
- n. One of Imagination's most precious possessions.
The rising People, hot and out of breath,
Roared around the palace: "Liberty or death!"
"If death will do," the King said, "let me reign;
You'll have, I'm sure, no reason to complain."
- n. A useful functionary, not infrequently found
editing a newspaper. In his character of editor he is
closely allied to the blackmailer by the tie of
occasional identity; for in truth the lickspittle is only
the blackmailer under another aspect, although the latter
is frequently found as an independent species.
Lickspittling is more detestable than blackmailing,
precisely as the business of a confidence man is more
detestable than that of a highway robber; and the
parallel maintains itself throughout, for whereas few
robbers will cheat, every sneak will plunder if he dare.
- n. A spiritual pickle preserving the body from
decay. We live in daily apprehension of its loss; yet
when lost it is not missed. The question, "Is life
worth living?" has been much discussed; particularly
by those who think it is not, many of whom have written
at great length in support of their view and by careful
observance of the laws of health enjoyed for long terms
of years the honors of successful controversy.
"Life's not worth living, and that's the truth,"
Carelessly caroled the golden youth.
In manhood still he maintained that view
And held it more strongly the older he grew.
When kicked by a jackass at eighty-three,
"Go fetch me a surgeon at once!" cried he.
- n. A tall building on the seashore in which the
government maintains a lamp and the friend of a
- n. The branch of a tree or the leg of an
'Twas a pair of boots that the lady bought,
And the salesman laced them tight
To a very remarkable height
Higher, indeed, than I think he ought
Higher than can be right.
For the Bible declares but never mind:
It is hardly fit
To censure freely and fault to find
With others for sins that I'm not inclined
Myself to commit.
Each has his weakness, and though my own
Is freedom from every sin,
It still were unfair to pitch in,
Discharging the first censorious stone.
Besides, the truth compels me to say,
The boots in question were made that way.
As he drew the lace she made a grimace,
And blushingly said to him:
"This boot, I'm sure, is too high to endure,
It hurts my hurts my limb."
The salesman smiled in a manner mild,
Like an artless, undesigning child;
Then, checking himself, to his face he gave
A look as sorrowful as the grave,
Though he didn't care two figs
For her paints and throes,
As he stroked her toes,
Remarking with speech and manner just
Befitting his calling: "Madam, I trust
That it doesn't hurt your twigs."
B. Percival Dike
- n. "A kind of cloth the making of which, when
made of hemp, entails a great waste of hemp."
Calcraft the Hangman
- n. A person about to give up his skin for the hope
of retaining his bones.
- n. A machine which you go into as a pig and come
out of as a sausage.
- n. A large red organ thoughtfully provided by
nature to be bilious with. The sentiments and emotions
which every literary anatomist now knows to haunt the
heart were anciently believed to infest the liver; and
even Gascoygne, speaking of the emotional side of human
nature, calls it "our hepaticall parte." It was
at one time considered the seat of life; hence its name
liver, the thing we live with. The liver is
heaven's best gift to the goose; without it that bird
would be unable to supply us with the Strasbourg pâté.
- Letters indicating the degree Legumptionorum
Doctor, one learned in laws, gifted with legal gumption.
Some suspicion is cast upon this derivation by the fact
that the title was formerly ££.d.,
and conferred only upon gentlemen distinguished for their
wealth. At the date of this writing Columbia University
is considering the expediency of making another degree
for clergymen, in place of the old D.D. Damnator
Diaboli. The new honor will be known as Sanctorum
Custus, and written $$¢.
The name of the Rev. John Satan has been suggested as a
suitable recipient by a lover of consistency, who points
out that Professor Harry Thurston Peck has long enjoyed
the advantage of a degree.
- n. The distinguishing device of civilization and
- n. A less popular name for the Second Person of
that delectable newspaper Trinity, the Roomer, the
Bedder, and the Mealer.
- 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 post-hole in sixty seconds;
therefore Conclusion: Sixty men can dig a post-hole 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.
- n. A war in which the weapons are words and the
wounds punctures in the swim-bladder of self-esteem
a kind of contest in which, the vanquished being
unconscious of defeat, the victor is denied the reward of
'Tis said by divers of the scholar-men
That poor Salmasius died of Milton's pen.
Alas! we cannot know if this is true,
For reading Milton's wit we perish too.
- n. The disposition to endure injury with meek
forbearance while maturing a plan of revenge.
- n. Uncommon extension of the fear of death.
- n. A vitreous plane upon which to display a
fleeting show for man's disillusion given.
The King of Manchuria had a magic looking-glass, whereon whoso
looked saw, not his own image, but only that of the king. A certain
courtier who had long enjoyed the king's favor and was thereby
enriched beyond any other subject of the realm, said to the king:
"Give me, I pray, thy wonderful mirror, so that when absent out of
thine august presence I may yet do homage before thy visible shadow,
prostrating myself night and morning in the glory of thy benign
countenance, as which nothing has so divine splendor, O Noonday Sun
of the Universe!"
Pleased with the speech, the king commanded that the mirror be
conveyed to the courtier's palace; but after, having gone thither
without apprisal, he found it in an apartment where was naught but
idle lumber. And the mirror was dimmed with dust and overlaced with
cobwebs. This so angered him that he fisted it hard, shattering the
glass, and was sorely hurt. Enraged all the more by this mischance,
he commanded that the ungrateful courtier be aired and taken back
to his own palace; and this was done. But when the king looked again
on the mirror he saw not his image as before, but only the figure of
a crowned ass, having a bloody bandage on one of its hinder hooves
as the artificers and all who had looked upon it had before discerned
but feared to report. Taught wisdom and charity, the king restored
his courtier to liberty, had the mirror set into the back of the
throne and reigned many years with justice and humility; and one day
when he fell asleep in death while on the throne, the whole court saw
in the mirror the luminous figure of an angel, which remains to this
- n. A disorder which renders the sufferer unable to
curb his tongue when you wish to talk.
- n. In American society, an English tourist above
the state of a costermonger, as, lord 'Aberdasher, Lord
Hartisan and so forth. The traveling Briton of lesser
degree is addressed as "Sir," as, Sir 'Arry
Donkiboi, or 'Amstead 'Eath. The word "Lord" is
sometimes used, also, as a title of the Supreme Being;
but this is thought to be rather flattery than true
Miss Sallie Ann Splurge, of her own accord,
Wedded a wandering English lord
Wedded and took him to dwell with her "paw,"
A parent who throve by the practice of Draw.
Lord Cadde I don't hesitate to declare
Unworthy the father-in-legal care
Of that elderly sport, notwithstanding the truth
That Cadde had renounced all the follies of youth;
For, sad to relate, he'd arrived at the stage
Of existence that's marked by the vices of age.
Among them, cupidity caused him to urge
Repeated demands on the pocket of Splurge,
Till, wrecked in his fortune, that gentleman saw
Inadequate aid in the practice of Draw,
And took, as a means of augmenting his pelf,
To the business of being a lord himself.
His neat-fitting garments he wilfully shed
And sacked himself strangely in checks instead;
Denuded his chin, but retained at each ear
A whisker that looked like a blasted career.
He painted his neck an incarnadine hue
Each morning and varnished it all that he knew.
The moony monocular set in his eye
Appeared to be scanning the Sweet Bye-and-Bye.
His head was enroofed with a billycock hat,
And his low-necked shoes were aduncous and flat.
In speech he eschewed his American ways,
Denying his nose to the use of his A's
And dulling their edge till the delicate sense
Of a babe at their temper could take no offence.
His H's 'twas most inexpressibly sweet,
The patter they made as they fell at his feet!
Re-outfitted thus, Mr. Splurge without fear
Began as Lord Splurge his recouping career.
Alas, the Divinity shaping his end
Entertained other views and decided to send
His lordship in horror, despair and dismay
From the land of the nobleman's natural prey.
For, smit with his Old World ways, Lady Cadde
Fell suffering Cæsar! in love with her dad!
- n. Learning particularly that sort which is
not derived from a regular course of instruction but
comes of the reading of occult books, or by nature. This
latter is commonly designated as folk-lore and embraces
popularly myths and superstitions. In Baring-Gould's Curious
Myths of the Middle Ages the reader will find many of
these traced backward, through various people son
converging lines, toward a common origin in remote
antiquity. Among these are the fables of "Teddy the
Giant Killer," "The Sleeping John Sharp
Williams," "Little Red Riding Hood and the
Sugar Trust," "Beauty and the Brisbane,"
"The Seven Aldermen of Ephesus," "Rip Van
Fairbanks," and so forth. The fable with Goethe so
affectingly relates under the title of "The
Erl-King" was known two thousand years ago in Greece
as "The Demos and the Infant Industry." One of
the most general and ancient of these myths is that
Arabian tale of "Ali Baba and the Forty
- n. Privation of that which we had, or had not.
Thus, in the latter sense, it is said of a defeated
candidate that he "lost his election"; and of
that eminent man, the poet Gilder, that he has "lost
his mind." It is in the former and more legitimate
sense, that the word is used in the famous epitaph:
Here Huntington's ashes long have lain
Whose loss is our eternal gain,
For while he exercised all his powers
Whatever he gained, the loss was ours.
- n. A temporary insanity curable by marriage or by
removal of the patient from the influences under which he
incurred the disorder. This disease, like caries
and many other ailments, is prevalent only among
civilized races living under artificial conditions;
barbarous nations breathing pure air and eating simple
food enjoy immunity from its ravages. It is sometimes
fatal, but more frequently to the physician than to the
- adj. "Raised" instead of brought up.
- n. One who throws light upon a subject; as an
editor by not writing about it.
- n. An inhabitant of the moon, as distinguished
from Lunatic, one whom the moon inhabits. The Lunarians
have been described by Lucian, Locke and other observers,
but without much agreement. For example, Bragellos avers
their anatomical identity with Man, but Professor Newcomb
says they are more like the hill tribes of Vermont.
- n. An ancient instrument of torture. The word is
now used in a figurative sense to denote the poetic
faculty, as in the following fiery lines of our great
poet, Ella Wheeler Wilcox:
I sit astride Parnassus with my lyre,
And pick with care the disobedient wire.
That stupid shepherd lolling on his crook
With deaf attention scarcely deigns to look.
I bide my time, and it shall come at length,
When, with a Titan's energy and strength,
I'll grab a fistful of the strings, and O,
The word shall suffer when I let them go!
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