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

John Herbert Evelyn Partington, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
John Herbert Evelyn Partington, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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.

Rare First Edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone Sold for More Than $56,000

UBC Library Communications and Marketing, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
UBC Library Communications and Marketing, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Publishers weren't very optimistic about the future of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone when they printed it in 1997. Only 500 first edition copies were made, 300 of which were donated to libraries. As anyone who's been to a bookstore, movie theater, or theme park in the past two decades knows, that prediction couldn't have been further off.

Book one of the Harry Potter series spawned one of the most successful literary franchises of all time and earned millions for author J.K. Rowling. That means those rare first edition prints are exceedingly valuable today, and one of the most pristine copies ever discovered just sold for $56,500 at auction, BBC reports.

The sellers, an anonymous couple from Lancashire, England, had stored their copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone—along with a first edition of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets—in a code-locked briefcase for safekeeping. The plan wasn't to wait for the books to accrue value over time; originally, they had wanted to protect them and pass them down as family heirlooms.

The couple changed their minds after learning that another first edition copy of Philosopher's Stone had sold for $35,000. That turned out to be a smart move. By locking it away, they managed to preserve one of the best first edition copies of the book experts had seen. The book also contained two errors that made it an even more appealing item for collectors. Its value was placed between $30,700 to $37,000.

At the auction, however, bidders blew past those numbers. It sold for a winning bid of approximately $56,500. The buyer will end up paying $70,000 in total to cover additional fees and taxes.

That's a significant amount to pay for a book, but it's not even the highest figure that's been bid for the title. Earlier in 2019, a first-edition print of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone with several errors sold for $90,000.

[h/t BBC]

When Bram Stoker Adapted Dracula for the Stage

Lyceum Theatre, London, 1897, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Lyceum Theatre, London, 1897, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

For one of literature’s most enduring works, Bram Stoker’s Dracula didn’t receive much of an audience turnout when it was first adapted for the stage. The classic 1897 novel was transformed into a play by Stoker the same year it was published—and only two paying customers showed up to its debut.

In Stoker's defense, it wasn't supposed to be a grand production; it was a copyright reading of the script, which was slapped together by the author in a hurry so he could submit it to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office for approval and licensing and retain the dramatic rights. The play, titled Dracula: or The Un-Dead, was held on May 18, 1897—eight days before the novel was released—and was only advertised for a half-hour before the performance began. Considering that the play had a prologue, five acts, and 40 scenes, it’s unclear whether an audience would have felt compelled to stay for the entire thing anyway.

The dramatic reading starred actress and pioneering suffragette Edith Craig as Mina Murray. Stoker had originally wanted the actor who helped inspired the character of Dracula—the dark, mysterious Henry Irving—to act alongside Murray. However, Irving reportedly refused to get involved, telling Stoker that the script for Dracula: or The Un-Dead was "dreadful."

The play faithfully adhered to the novel Dracula’s plot, although many of the epistolary work's lush details were condensed for time purposes. A series of character monologues help move the story forward; Greg Buzwell, who serves as curator for Printed Literary Sources, 1801–1914 at the British Library, points out that they might have sounded wooden because Stoker was better at scenic details than straight-up dialogue.

Following Dracula's stage debut, Stoker’s bloodthirsty Count didn’t reappear in theaters until 1924. However, the original play’s script offers a peek into Bram Stoker’s artistic process as he translated his characters from page to stage. You can check out the hodgepodge of personal handwriting and galley proofs over at the British Library’s website, which gives a great overview of the play's historic legacy.

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