AMBROSE BIERCE (1842-1913)
Public Domain Copyright Expired
J · K · L | Index
- 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 finger.
- 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
- 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 successor.
- n. A costume sometimes worn by Scotchmen in America and Americans
- 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 exist.
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
- 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 spargens.
- 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 supra.)
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 jurisdiction.
- n. One skilled in circumvention of the law.
- n. Unwarranted repose of manner in a person of low degree.
- 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 studious.
- 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 Peeler Silcox:
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 song."
- 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 Warsaw.
- 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 politician.
- n. The branch of a tree or the leg of an American woman.
'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
- n. A machine which you go into as a pig and come out of as a
- 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
- 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 enlightenment.
- 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
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 reverence.
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 Cζsar! 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 Rockefellers."
- 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 patient.
- adj. "Raised" instead of brought up.
- n. One who throws light upon a subject; as an editor by not writing
- 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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