AMBROSE BIERCE (1842-1913)
Public Domain Copyright
- n. A soldierly compound of vanity, duty and the
"Why have you halted?" roared the commander of a division at
Chickamauga, who had ordered a charge; "move forward, sir, at once."
"General," said the commander of the delinquent brigade, "I am
persuaded that any further display of valor by my troops will bring
them into collision with the enemy."
- n. The tribute of a fool to the worth of the
They say that hens do cackle loudest when
There's nothing vital in the eggs they've laid;
And there are hens, professing to have made
A study of mankind, who say that men
Whose business 'tis to drive the tongue or pen
Make the most clamorous fanfaronade
O'er their most worthless work; and I'm afraid
They're not entirely different from the hen.
Lo! the drum-major in his coat of gold,
His blazing breeches and high-towering cap
Imperiously pompous, grandly bold,
Grim, resolute, an awe-inspiring chap!
Who'd think this gorgeous creature's only virtue
Is that in battle he will never hurt you?
- n. pl. Certain abstentions.
- n. Satire, as understood by dunces and all such as
suffer from an impediment in their wit.
- n. The instrument and symbol of a freeman's power
to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country.
- (double U) has, of all the letters in our alphabet, the
only cumbrous name, the names of the others being
monosyllabic. This advantage of the Roman alphabet over
the Grecian is the more valued after audibly spelling out
some simple Greek word, like ÎpicoriambikóS. Still, it is now thought by the
learned that other agencies than the difference of the
two alphabets may have been concerned in the decline of
"the glory that was Greece" and the rise of
"the grandeur that was Rome." There can be no
doubt, however, that by simplifying the name of W
(calling it "wow," for example) our
civilization could be, if not promoted, at least better
- n. A symbol for sin for every devil to rebuke.
That Wall Street is a den of thieves is a belief that
serves every unsuccessful thief in place of a hope in
Heaven. Even the great and good Andrew Carnegie has made
his profession of faith in the matter.
Carnegie the dauntless has uttered his call
To battle: "The brokers are parasites all!"
Carnegie, Carnegie, you'll never prevail;
Keep the wind of your slogan to belly your sail,
Go back to your isle of perpetual brume,
Silence your pibroch, doff tartan and plume:
Ben Lomond is calling his son from the fray
Fly, fly from the region of Wall Street away!
While still you're possessed of a single baubee
(I wish it were pledged to endowment of me)
'Twere wise to retreat from the wars of finance
Lest its value decline ere your credit advance.
For a man 'twixt a king of finance and the sea,
Carnegie, Carnegie, your tongue is too free!
- n. A by-product of the arts of peace. The most
menacing political condition is a period of international
amity. The student of history who has not been taught to
expect the unexpected may justly boast himself
inaccessible to the light. "In time of peace prepare
for war" has a deeper meaning than is commonly
discerned; it means, not merely that all things earthly
have an end that change is the one immutable and
eternal law but that the soil of peace is thickly
sown with the seeds of war and singularly suited to their
germination and growth. It was when Kubla Khan had
decreed his "stately pleasure dome"
when, that is to say, there were peace and fat feasting
in Xanadu that he
heard from afar
Ancestral voices prophesying war.
One of the greatest of poets, Coleridge was one of the wisest of
men, and it was not for nothing that he read us this parable. Let us
have a little less of "hands across the sea," and a little more of that
elemental distrust that is the security of nations. War loves to
come like a thief in the night; professions of eternal amity provide
- n. A Potomac tribesman who exchanged the privilege
of governing himself for the advantage of good
government. In justice to him it should be said that he
did not want to.
They took away his vote and gave instead
The right, when he had earned, to eat his bread.
In vain he clamors for his "boss," pour soul,
To come again and part him from his roll.
- n. pl. Certain primal powers of Tyrant Woman
wherewith she holds dominion over the male of her
species, binding him to the service of her will and
paralyzing his rebellious energies.
- n. The climate of the hour. A permanent topic of
conversation among persons whom it does not interest, but
who have inherited the tendency to chatter about it from
naked arboreal ancestors whom it keenly concerned. The
setting up official weather bureaus and their maintenance
in mendacity prove that even governments are accessible
to suasion by the rude forefathers of the jungle.
Once I dipt into the future far as human eye could see,
And I saw the Chief Forecaster, dead as any one can be
Dead and damned and shut in Hades as a liar from his birth,
With a record of unreason seldom paralleled on earth.
While I looked he reared him solemnly, that incandescent youth,
From the coals that he'd preferred to the advantages of truth.
He cast his eyes about him and above him; then he wrote
On a slab of thin asbestos what I venture here to quote
For I read it in the rose-light of the everlasting glow:
"Cloudy; variable winds, with local showers; cooler; snow."
- n. A ceremony at which two persons undertake to
become one, one undertakes to become nothing, and nothing
undertakes to become supportable.
- n. A wolf that was once, or is sometimes, a man.
All werewolves are of evil disposition, having assumed a
bestial form to gratify a bestial appetite, but some,
transformed by sorcery, are as humane and is consistent
with an acquired taste for human flesh.
Some Bavarian peasants having caught a wolf one evening, tied it
to a post by the tail and went to bed. The next morning nothing was
there! Greatly perplexed, they consulted the local priest, who told
them that their captive was undoubtedly a werewolf and had resumed
its human for during the night. "The next time that you take a wolf,"
the good man said, "see that you chain it by the leg, and in the
morning you will find a Lutheran."
- n. In the Ojibwa tongue, disaster; an unexpected
affliction that strikes hard.
Should you ask me whence this laughter,
Whence this audible big-smiling,
With its labial extension,
With its maxillar distortion
And its diaphragmic rhythmus
Like the billowing of an ocean,
Like the shaking of a carpet,
I should answer, I should tell you:
From the great deeps of the spirit,
From the unplummeted abysmus
Of the soul this laughter welleth
As the fountain, the gug-guggle,
Like the river from the cańon,
To entoken and give warning
That my present mood is sunny.
Should you ask me further question
Why the great deeps of the spirit,
Why the unplummeted abysmus
Of the soul extrudes this laughter,
This all audible big-smiling,
I should answer, I should tell you
With a white heart, tumpitumpy,
With a true tongue, honest Injun:
William Bryan, he has Caught It,
Caught the Whangdepootenawah!
Is't the sandhill crane, the shankank,
Standing in the marsh, the kneedeep,
Standing silent in the kneedeep
With his wing-tips crossed behind him
And his neck close-reefed before him,
With his bill, his william, buried
In the down upon his bosom,
With his head retracted inly,
While his shoulders overlook it?
Does the sandhill crane, the shankank,
Shiver grayly in the north wind,
Wishing he had died when little,
As the sparrow, the chipchip, does?
No 'tis not the Shankank standing,
Standing in the gray and dismal
Marsh, the gray and dismal kneedeep.
No, 'tis peerless William Bryan
Realizing that he's Caught It,
Caught the Whangdepootenawah!
- n. A cereal from which a tolerably good whisky can
with some difficulty be made, and which is used also for
bread. The French are said to eat more bread per capita
of population than any other people, which is natural,
for only they know how to make the stuff palatable.
- adj. and n. Black.
- n. A pathetic figure that the Christian world has
agreed to take humorously, although Christ's tenderness
towards widows was one of the most marked features of his
- n. Fermented grape-juice known to the Women's
Christian Union as "liquor," sometimes as
"rum." Wine, madam, is God's next best gift to
- n. The salt with which the American humorist
spoils his intellectual cookery by leaving it out.
- n. (1) Any ugly and repulsive old woman, in a
wicked league with the devil. (2) A beautiful and
attractive young woman, in wickedness a league beyond the
- n. A sharp and clever remark, usually quoted, and
seldom noted; what the Philistine is pleased to call a
- n. An animal usually living in the vicinity of
Man, and having a rudimentary susceptibility to
domestication. It is credited by many of the elder
zoölogists with a certain vestigial docility acquired in
a former state of seclusion, but naturalists of the
postsusananthony period, having no knowledge of the
seclusion, deny the virtue and declare that such as
creation's dawn beheld, it roareth now. The species is
the most widely distributed of all beasts of prey,
infesting all habitable parts of the globe, from
Greenland's spicy mountains to India's moral strand. The
popular name (wolf-man) is incorrect, for the creature is
of the cat kind. The woman is lithe and graceful in its
movement, especially the American variety (Felis
pugnans), is omnivorous and can be taught not to
talk. Balthasar Pober.
- n. The finished product of which we are the raw
material. The contents of the Taj Mahal, the Tombeau
Napoleon and the Grantarium. Worms'-meat is usually
outlasted by the structure that houses it, but "this
too must pass away." Probably the silliest work in
which a human being can engage is construction of a tomb
for himself. The solemn purpose cannot dignify, but only
accentuates by contrast the foreknown futility.
Ambitious fool! so mad to be a show!
How profitless the labor you bestow
Upon a dwelling whose magnificence
The tenant neither can admire nor know.
Build deep, build high, build massive as you can,
The wanton grass-roots will defeat the plan
By shouldering asunder all the stones
In what to you would be a moment's span.
Time to the dead so all unreckoned flies
That when your marble is all dust, arise,
If wakened, stretch your limbs and yawn
You'll think you scarcely can have closed your eyes.
What though of all man's works your tomb alone
Should stand till Time himself be overthrown?
Would it advantage you to dwell therein
Forever as a stain upon a stone?
- n. Homo Creator's testimony to the sound
construction and fine finish of Deus Creatus. A popular
form of abjection, having an element of pride.
- n. Anger of a superior quality and degree,
appropriate to exalted characters and momentous
occasions; as, "the wrath of God," "the
day of wrath," etc. Amongst the ancients the wrath
of kings was deemed sacred, for it could usually command
the agency of some god for its fit manifestation, as
could also that of a priest. The Greeks before Troy were
so harried by Apollo that they jumped out of the
frying-pan of the wrath of Cryses into the fire of the
wrath of Achilles, though Agamemnon, the sole offender,
was neither fried nor roasted. A similar noted immunity
was that of David when he incurred the wrath of Yahveh by
numbering his people, seventy thousand of whom paid the
penalty with their lives. God is now Love, and a director
of the census performs his work without apprehension of
- in our alphabet being a needless letter has an added
invincibility to the attacks of the spelling reformers,
and like them, will doubtless last as long as the
language. X is the sacred symbol of ten dollars, and in
such words as Xmas, Xn, etc., stands for Christ, not, as
is popularly supposed, because it represents a cross, but
because the corresponding letter in the Greek alphabet is
the initial of his name CristóS. If it represented a cross it would
stand for St. Andrew, who "testified" upon one
of that shape. In the algebra of psychology x
stands for Woman's mind. Words beginning with X are
Grecian and will not be defined in this standard English
- n. In Europe, an American. In the Northern States
of our Union, a New Englander. In the Southern States the
word is unknown. (See DAMYANK.)
- n. A period of three hundred and sixty-five
- n. The infancy of youth, the youth of manhood, the
entire past of age.
But yesterday I should have thought me blest
To stand high-pinnacled upon the peak
Of middle life and look adown the bleak
And unfamiliar foreslope to the West,
Where solemn shadows all the land invest
And stilly voices, half-remembered, speak
Unfinished prophecy, and witch-fires freak
The haunted twilight of the Dark of Rest.
Yea, yesterday my soul was all aflame
To stay the shadow on the dial's face
At manhood's noonmark! Now, in God His name
I chide aloud the little interspace
Disparting me from Certitude, and fain
Would know the dream and vision ne'er again.
It is said that in his last illness the poet Arnegriff was
attended at different times by seven doctors.
- n. An implement, madam, to whose Latin name, jugum,
we owe one of the most illuminating words in our language
a word that defines the matrimonial situation with
precision, point and poignancy. A thousand apologies for
- n. The Period of Possibility, when Archimedes
finds a fulcrum, Cassandra has a following and seven
cities compete for the honor of endowing a living Homer.
Youth is the true Saturnian Reign, the Golden Age on earth
again, when figs are grown on thistles, and pigs betailed with
whistles and, wearing silken bristles, live ever in clover, and
cows fly over, delivering milk at every door, and Justice never
is heard to snore, and every assassin is made a ghost and,
howling, is cast into Baltimost! Polydore Smith
- n. A popular character in old Italian plays, who
imitated with ludicrous incompetence the buffone,
or clown, and was therefore the ape of an ape; for the
clown himself imitated the serious characters of the
play. The zany was progenitor to the specialist in humor,
as we to-day have the unhappiness to know him. In the
zany we see an example of creation; in the humorist, of
transmission. Another excellent specimen of the modern
zany is the curate, who apes the rector, who apes the
bishop, who apes the archbishop, who apes the devil.
- n. An inhabitant of the Sultanate of Zanzibar, off
the eastern coast of Africa. The Zanzibaris, a warlike
people, are best known in this country through a
threatening diplomatic incident that occurred a few years
ago. The American consul at the capital occupied a
dwelling that faced the sea, with a sandy beach between.
Greatly to the scandal of this official's family, and
against repeated remonstrances of the official himself,
the people of the city persisted in using the beach for
bathing. One day a woman came down to the edge of the
water and was stooping to remove her attire (a pair of
sandals) when the consul, incensed beyond restraint,
fired a charge of bird-shot into the most conspicuous
part of her person. Unfortunately for the existing entente
cordiale between two great nations, she was the
- n. A certain nervous disorder afflicting the young
and inexperienced. A passion that goeth before a sprawl.
When Zeal sought Gratitude for his reward
He went away exclaiming: "O my Lord!"
"What do you want?" the Lord asked, bending down.
"An ointment for my cracked and bleeding crown."
- n. The point in the heavens directly overhead to a
man standing or a growing cabbage. A man in bed or a
cabbage in the pot is not considered as having a zenith,
though from this view of the matter there was once a
considerably dissent among the learned, some holding that
the posture of the body was immaterial. These were called
Horizontalists, their opponents, Verticalists. The
Horizontalist heresy was finally extinguished by Xanobus,
the philosopher-king of Abara, a zealous Verticalist.
Entering an assembly of philosophers who were debating
the matter, he cast a severed human head at the feet of
his opponents and asked them to determine its zenith,
explaining that its body was hanging by the heels
outside. Observing that it was the head of their leader,
the Horizontalists hastened to profess themselves
converted to whatever opinion the Crown might be pleased
to hold, and Horizontalism took its place among fides
- n. The chief of Grecian gods, adored by the Romans
as Jupiter and by the modern Americans as God, Gold, Mob
and Dog. Some explorers who have touched upon the shores
of America, and one who professes to have penetrated a
considerable distance to the interior, have thought that
these four names stand for as many distinct deities, but
in his monumental work on Surviving Faiths, Frumpp
insists that the natives are monotheists, each having no
other god than himself, whom he worships under many
- v.t. To move forward uncertainly, from side to
side, as one carrying the white man's burden. (From zed,
z, and jag, an Icelandic word of unknown meaning.)
He zedjagged so uncomen wyde
Thet non coude pas on eyder syde;
So, to com saufly thruh, I been
Constreynet for to doodge betwene.
- n. The science and history of the animal kingdom,
including its king, the House Fly (Musca maledicta).
The father of Zoölogy was Aristotle, as is universally
conceded, but the name of its mother has not come down to
us. Two of the science's most illustrious expounders were
Buffon and Oliver Goldsmith, from both of whom we learn (L'Histoire
générale des animaux and A History of Animated
Nature) that the domestic cow sheds its horn every
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