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Words Redefined: 37 Notable Entries in The Devil's Dictionary

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Ambrose Bierce was a celebrated journalist, storyteller and, above all, cynic. Bierce had a barbed wit, and he often used it to kick American culture square in the teeth. In 1911, he published The Devil’s Dictionary, a partial lexicon that sardonically redefines over 1000 words. Here are some of our favorites.

1. Academy, n. A modern school where football is taught.


2. Achievement, n. The death of endeavor and the birth of disgust.


3. Alone, adj. In bad company.


4. Beauty, n. The power by which a woman charms a lover and terrifies a husband.


5. Behavior, n. Conduct, as determined, not by principle, but by breeding.


6. Brain, n. An apparatus with which we think what we think. That which distinguishes the man who is content to be something from the man who wishes to do something.


7. Cabbage, n. A familiar kitchen-garden vegetable about as large and wise as a man’s head.


8. Cat, n. A soft, indestructible automaton provided by nature to be kicked when things go wrong in the domestic circle.

9. Childhood, n. The period of human life intermediate between the idiocy of infancy and the folly of youth—two removes from the sin of manhood and three from the remorse of age.

10. Circus, n. A place where horses, ponies and elephants are permitted to see men and women and children acting the fool.

11. Congratulation, n. The civility of envy.

12. Dentist, n.

A prestidigitator who, putting metal into your mouth, pulls coins out of your pocket.

13. Destiny, n. A tyrant’s authority for crime and a fool’s excuse for failure

14. Edible, n. Good to eat, and wholesome to digest, as a worm to a toad, a toad to a snake, a snake to a pig, a pig to a man, and a man to a worm.

15. Envelope, n. The coffin of a document; the scabbard of a bill; the husk of a remittance; the bed-gown of a love-letter.

16. Famous, adj. Conspicuously miserable.

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

18. Habit, n. A shackle for the free

19. History, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.

20. Hope, n. Desire and expectation rolled into one.

21. Imagination, n. A warehouse of facts, with poet and liar in joint ownership.

22. Ink, n. A villainous compound…chiefly used to facilitate the infection of idiocy and promote intellectual crime. The properties of ink are peculiar and contradictory: it may be used to make reputations and unmake them; to blacken them and to make them white.

23. Life, n. A spiritual pickle preserving the body from decay.

24. Logic, n. The art of thinking and reasoning in strict accordance with the limitations and incapacities of human misunderstanding.

25. Mad, adj. Affected with a high degree of intellectual independence; not conforming to standards of thought, speech and action…at odds with the majority; in short, unusual. It is noteworthy that persons are pronounced mad by officials destitute of evidence that themselves are sane.

26. Man, n. An animal so lost in rapturous contemplation of what he thinks he is as to overlook what he indubitably ought to be.

27. Money, n. A blessing that is of no advantage to us excepting when we part with it.

28. Noise, n. A stench in the ear. Undomesticated music. The chief product and authenticating sign of civilization.

29. Perseverance, n. A lowly virtue whereby mediocrity achieves an inglorious success.

30. Politeness, n. The most acceptable hypocrisy.

31. Resident, adj. Unable to leave.

32. Road, n. A strip of land along which one may pass from where it is too tiresome to be to where it is too futile to go.

33. Rumor, n. A favorite weapon of the assassins of character.

34. Sauce, n. The one infallible sign of civilization and enlightenment. A people with no sauces has one thousand vices; a people with one sauce has nine hundred and ninety-nine. For every sauce invented and accepted, a vice is renounced and forgiven.

35. Selfish, adj. Devoid of consideration for the selfishness of others.

36. Telephone, n. An invention of the devil which abrogates some of the advantages of making a disagreeable person keep his distance.

37. Year, n. A period of three hundred and sixty-five disappointments.

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15 Ways to Avoid Saying 'Death'
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People make up ridiculous, circuitous, preposterous terms when they’re afraid to discuss something—and death is near the top of anyone’s list of fears. Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf’s Spinglish: The Definitive Dictionary of Deliberately Deceitful Language is a terrific new dictionary of verbal evasions covering many subjects, including dozens of ways to avoid saying reaper-related words. As Beard and Cerf show, sometimes we’ll say anything to avoid the d-word.

1. arbitrary deprivation of life

This whopper comes from the State Department in 1984. It buries assassination—specifically assassination by so-called friendly governments—in jargon. The lifelessness of the phrasing is unintentionally appropriate.

2. terminal episode

This one is kinda sorta honest: the word terminal is at least in the ballpark of death. But there’s still something antiseptic about terminal episode, a term for death, especially one in a hospital. I’m reminded of another great death-related idiom that’s half-euphemistic: terminate with extreme prejudice. That’s a strongly worded assassination order that you might remember from Apocalypse Now.

3. attrit

To attrit is to kill. The Oxford English Dictionary traces this back to 1915 and a Daily Mail use: “Our Ministers talk of ending this war by ‘attrition.’ Who is being ‘attrited’ by these slovenly methods?” On the other hand, if you’ve been attritioned, you’re a bit better off: you’ve only been fired, a topic that is another lightning rod for euphemisms.

4. dynamically address

This term comes from the U.S. Army’s Task Force ODIN, who struggled with insurgents for control of Iraq’s roads. Needless to say, when ODIN dynamically addressed a situation, it resulted in casualties on the other side.

5. expectant

An earlier U.S. war gave us this term: in the Vietnam era, expectants were civilians expected to die.

6. sent on a trip to Belize

On a much lighter note, this term was used on Breaking Bad by the character Saul Goodman, who was trying to find a polite way to ask meth cooker Walter White if Walt’s brother-in-law Hank needed to be whacked. (Ah, whacked. Of course that’s also a euphemism for killing—one popularized by mob movies and The Sopranos.)

7. immediate permanent incapacitation

This term for death has a rather specific use: it appeared in a U.S. Army document about the impact and use of nuclear weapons. Whatever the cause, immediate permanent incapacitation is not recommended by doctors, with the exception of Dr. Doom.

8. game management

This sounds like the kind of careful supervision any game, contest, or sport requires. Nope. It’s a term for the mass killing of animals, either through hunting (itself a euphemism) or other slaughter.

9. go to Switzerland

There are plenty of reasons to literally go to Switzerland—but this sense is more metaphorical, as it involves seeking assisted suicide. The term is derived from the fact that it’s easier to get such end-of-life help in Switzerland.

10. self-injurious behavior incident

The Jargon Gods smiled and perhaps shuddered when the U.S Department of Defense came up with this term for suicide attempts at Guantanamo.

11. depopulation

When seven million chickens were euthanized in 1983 to prevent the spread of disease, the U.S. government needed a word to make this chicken-pocalypse sound less awful. So they settled on depopulation, a sterile term with a long history. Depopulation has referred to, as the OED puts it, “laying waste, devastation, ravaging, pillaging” since the 1400s.

12. diagnostic misadventure of high magnitude

Here’s another one from the medical world. While this sounds a little like hype for the latest summer movie—Diagnostic Misadventure of High Magnitude! Starring The Rock!—it actually applies to a specific sort of demise: when a patient dies during an exam due to malpractice. If the death occurred during treatment, it would be a therapeutic misadventure.

13. neutralize

This OED shows this term going back to at least 1937, in a (London) Times article: “A mechanized advance-guard battery was shown going into action in support of attacking infantry and attempting to neutralize an area.” If the meaning isn’t exactly clear, a 1970 report about Vietnam is more explicit: “The Phoenix program had resulted in some 15,000 VCI, meaning Vietcong infrastructure, or cadre, being ‘neutralized’ in 1968.” Neutralized = killed.

14. sacrificed

Lab rats—and lab monkeys, lab cats, and other lab critters—who die while being experimented on are said to be sacrificed. I guess this one isn’t totally deceitful. A scientist sacrificing a macaque for knowledge and a Satanist sacrificing a goat for the lord of the underworld are, in a way, doing the same thing.

15. health alteration

Here’s a euphemistic wonder. Technically, a health alternation could be almost anything, from catching a cold to dropping a few pounds. Alas, this is actually another term for assassination coined in the 1960s by the CIA. Let’s just say you wanted to stay off the radar of the health alteration committee.

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27 Cowboy Slang Terms for Things You Eat and Drink
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If your bread wallet is empty and you need to line the flue, knight the ribbons and mosey to a beanery. Your cookie-pusher will know what you mean when you order any of these 27 cowboy food and drink items.

1. Bear Sign: Doughnuts
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2. Overland trout: Bacon
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3. Blue John: Skimmed milk
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4. Boggy-top: A pie with no top crust
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5. Cackleberries: Eggs
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6. Charlie Taylor: A butter substitute made of sorghum or syrup mixed with fat. It wasn't good, and apparently neither was Charlie Taylor, who was terrible enough to lend his name to the unpopular trail staple.

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7. Hen-fruit Stir and Long Sweetenin': Pancakes and molasses
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8. Horse Thief Special / Spotted Pup: Rice or tapioca pudding with raisins
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9. Hot Rock / Sinker / Doughgods: Biscuits
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10. Huckdummy: Biscuits with raisins
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11. Love Apples: Canned tomatoes
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12. Music Roots: Sweet potatoes
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13. Mysteries: Sausage of any variety, so-called because that's what they're made of
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14. Bee-sweetenin’: Honey
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15. Pecos Strawberries / Mexican Strawberries / Whistle Berries: Beans
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16. Roastineer: To "roast an ear" of corn over the fire while still in its husk
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17. Salt Horse: Corned beef
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18. Saltwater Vegetables: Oysters or clams
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19. Sipper / Texas Butter: Gravy
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20. Skunk eggs: Onion
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21. Son-of-a-gun Stew (or if there are no womenfolk present, Son-of-a-bitch Stew): Stew made of whatever is available and the organs of a recently-slaughtered calf. So-called because the son-of-a-gun young cattle can't keep up on the trail.
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22. Wasp Nest: Bread

And don’t forget to order a drink!

23. Six-shooter Skink / Float a Horseshoe / Arbuckle's / Brown Gargle / Jamoka: Coffee
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24. Belly Wash / Soda Pop / Black Water: Really weak coffee
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25. John Barleycorn / Purge / Hop Juice: Beer
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26. Nose Paint / Pop Skull / Prairie Dew / Rebel Soldier / Red Eye / Snake Pizen / Tarantula Juice / Tongue Oil / Tonsil Paint / Tornado Juice / Busthead / Bottled Courage / Family Disturbance / Gut Warmer / Kansas Sheep Dip: Whiskey
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27. And a shot of whiskey with a beer chaser is a boilermaker and his helper.

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We'd need a book to list them all -- what's your favorite cowboy food slang?

Collected from Legends of America's Old West Slang Dictionary and Westopedia: The Language and Lore of Real America by Win Blevins

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