AMBROSE BIERCE (1842-1913)
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- n. A soldierly compound of vanity, duty and the gambler's hope.
"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 nearest ass.
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 endured.
- 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
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 character.
- 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 man.
- 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 devil.
- n. A sharp and clever remark, usually quoted, and seldom noted;
what the Philistine is pleased to call a "joke."
- 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
- 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
- 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 disaster.
- 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 dictionary.
- 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 disappointments.
- n. The infancy of youth, the youth of manhood, the entire past of
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 withholding it.
- n. The Period of Possibility, when Archimedes finds a fulcrum,
Cassandra has a following and seven cities compete for the honor of endowing a
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 defuncti.
- 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 sacred names.
- 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 two years.
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