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Ambrose Bierce The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


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MACE, n. A staff of office signifying authority. Its form, that of a heavy club, indicates its original purpose and use in dissuading from dissent.

MACHINATION, n. The method employed by one's opponents in baffling one's open and honorable efforts to do the right thing.

So plain the advantages of machination
It constitutes a moral obligation,

And honest wolves who think upon't with loathing
Feel bound to don the sheep's deceptive clothing.
So prospers still the diplomatic art,

And Satan bows, with hand upon his heart.

      —R. S. K.

MACROBIAN, n. One forgotten of the gods and living to a great age. History is abundantly supplied with examples, from Methuselah to Old Parr, but some notable instances of longevity are less well known. A Calabrian peasant named Coloni, born in 1753, lived so long that he had what he considered a glimpse of the dawn of universal peace. Scanavius relates that he knew an archbishop who was so old that he could remember a time when he did not deserve hanging. In 1566 a linen draper of Bristol, England, declared that he had lived five hundred years, and that in all that time he had never told a lie. There are instances of longevity (macrobiosis) in our own country. Senator Chauncey Depew is old enough to know better. The editor of The American, a newspaper in New York City, has a memory that goes back to the time when he was a rascal, but not to the fact. The President of the United States was born so long ago that many of the friends of his youth have risen to high political and military preferment without the assistance of personal merit. The verses following were written by a macrobian:

When I was young the world was fair
And amiable and sunny.
A brightness was in all the air,

In all the waters, honey.
The jokes were fine and funny,

The statesmen honest in their views,

And in their lives, as well,

And when you heard a bit of news
'Twas true enough to tell.
Men were not ranting, shouting, reeking,

Nor women "generally speaking."

The Summer then was long indeed:
It lasted one whole season!
The sparkling Winter gave no heed
When ordered by Unreason
To bring the early peas on.
Now, where the dickens is the sense
In calling that a year
Which does no more than just commence
Before the end is near?
When I was young the year extended
From month to month until it ended.

I know not why the world has changed
To something dark and dreary,

And everything is now arranged
To make a fellow weary.
The Weather Man—I fear he
Has much to do with it, for, sure,

The air is not the same:
It chokes you when it is impure,

When pure it makes you lame.
With windows closed you are asthmatic;
Open, neuralgic or sciatic.

Well, I suppose this new regime
Of dun degeneration
Seems eviler than it would seem
To a better observation,

And has for compensation
Some blessings in a deep disguise
Which mortal sight has failed
To pierce, although to angels' eyes
They're visible unveiled.
If Age is such a boon, good land!
He's costumed by a master hand!

      — Venable Strigg

MAD, adj. Affected with a high degree of intellectual independence; not conforming to standards of thought, speech and action derived by the conformants from study of themselves; 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. For illustration, this present (and illustrious) lexicographer is no firmer in the faith of his own sanity than is any inmate of any madhouse in the land; yet for aught he knows to the contrary, instead of the lofty occupation that seems to him to be engaging his powers he may really be beating his hands against the window bars of an asylum and declaring himself Noah Webster, to the innocent delight of many thoughtless spectators.

MAGDALENE, n. An inhabitant of Magdala. Popularly, a woman found out. This definition of the word has the authority of ignorance, Mary of Magdala being another person than the penitent woman mentioned by St. Luke. It has also the official sanction of the governments of Great Britain and the United States. In England the word is pronounced Maudlin, whence maudlin, adjective, unpleasantly sentimental. With their Maudlin for Magdalene, and their Bedlam for Bethlehem, the English may justly boast themselves the greatest of revisers.

MAGIC, n. An art of converting superstition into coin. There are other arts serving the same high purpose, but the discreet lexicographer does not name them.

MAGNET, n. Something acted upon by magnetism.

MAGNETISM, n. Something acting upon a magnet. The two definitions immediately foregoing are condensed from the works of one thousand eminent scientists, who have illuminated the subject with a great white light, to the inexpressible advancement of human knowledge.

MAGNIFICENT, adj. Having a grandeur or splendor superior to that to which the spectator is accustomed, as the ears of an ass, to a rabbit, or the glory of a glowworm, to a maggot.

MAGNITUDE, n. Size. Magnitude being purely relative, nothing is large and nothing small. If everything in the universe were increased in bulk one thousand diameters nothing would be any larger than it was before, but if one thing remain unchanged all the others would be larger than they had been. To an understanding familiar with the relativity of magnitude and distance the spaces and masses of the astronomer would be no more impressive than those of the microscopist. For anything we know to the contrary, the visible universe may be a small part of an atom, with its component ions, floating in the life- fluid (luminiferous ether) of some animal. Possibly the wee creatures peopling the corpuscles of our own blood are overcome with the proper emotion when contemplating the unthinkable distance from one of these to another.

MAGPIE, n. A bird whose thievish disposition suggested to someone that it might be taught to talk.

MAIDEN, n. A young person of the unfair sex addicted to clewless conduct and views that madden to crime. The genus has a wide geographical distribution, being found wherever sought and deplored wherever found. The maiden is not altogether unpleasing to the eye, nor (without her piano and her views) insupportable to the ear, though in respect to comeliness distinctly inferior to the rainbow, and, with regard to the part of her that is audible, bleating out of the field by the canary—which, also, is more portable.

A lovelorn maiden she sat and sang—
This quaint, sweet song sang she;
"It's O for a youth with a football bang
And a muscle fair to see!
The Captain he
Of a team to be!
On the gridiron he shall shine,

A monarch by right divine,

And never to roast on it—me!"

      —Opoline Jones

MAJESTY, n. The state and title of a king. Regarded with a just contempt by the Most Eminent Grand Masters, Grand Chancellors, Great Incohonees and Imperial Potentates of the ancient and honorable orders of republican America.

MALE, n. A member of the unconsidered, or negligible sex. The male of the human race is commonly known (to the female) as Mere Man. The genus has two varieties: good providers and bad providers.

MALEFACTOR, n. The chief factor in the progress of the human race.

MALTHUSIAN, adj. Pertaining to Malthus and his doctrines. Malthus believed in artificially limiting population, but found that it could not be done by talking. One of the most practical exponents of the Malthusian idea was Herod of Judea, though all the famous soldiers have been of the same way of thinking.

MAMMALIA, n.pl. A family of vertebrate animals whose females in a state of nature suckle their young, but when civilized and enlightened put them out to nurse, or use the bottle.

MAMMON, n. The god of the world's leading religion. The chief temple is in the holy city of New York.

He swore that all other religions were gammon,

And wore out his knees in the worship of Mammon.

      —Jared Oopf

MAN, n. An animal so lost in rapturous contemplation of what he thinks he is as to overlook what he indubitably ought to be. His chief occupation is extermination of other animals and his own species, which, however, multiplies with such insistent rapidity as to infest the whole habitable earth and Canada.

When the world was young and Man was new,

And everything was pleasant,

Distinctions Nature never drew
'Mongst kings and priest and peasant.
We're not that way at present,

Save here in this Republic, where
We have that old regime,

For all are kings, however bare
Their backs, howe'er extreme
Their hunger. And, indeed, each has a voice
To accept the tyrant of his party's choice.

A citizen who would not vote,

And, therefore, was detested,

Was one day with a tarry coat
(With feathers backed and breasted)
By patriots invested.
"It is your duty," cried the crowd,

"Your ballot true to cast
For the man o' your choice." He humbly bowed,

And explained his wicked past:
"That's what I very gladly would have done,

Dear patriots, but he has never run."

      —Apperton Duke

MANES, n. The immortal parts of dead Greeks and Romans. They were in a state of dull discomfort until the bodies from which they had exhaled were buried and burned; and they seem not to have been particularly happy afterward.

MANICHEISM, n. The ancient Persian doctrine of an incessant warfare between Good and Evil. When Good gave up the fight the Persians joined the victorious Opposition.

MANNA, n. A food miraculously given to the Israelites in the wilderness. When it was no longer supplied to them they settled down and tilled the soil, fertilizing it, as a rule, with the bodies of the original occupants.

MARRIAGE, n. The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two.

MARTYR, n. One who moves along the line of least reluctance to a desired death.

MATERIAL, adj. Having an actual existence, as distinguished from an imaginary one. Important.

Material things I know, or fell, or see;
All else is immaterial to me.

      —Jamrach Holobom

MAUSOLEUM, n. The final and funniest folly of the rich.

MAYONNAISE, n. One of the sauces which serve the French in place of a state religion.

ME, pro. The objectionable case of I. The personal pronoun in English has three cases, the dominative, the objectionable and the oppressive. Each is all three.

MEANDER, n. To proceed sinuously and aimlessly. The word is the ancient name of a river about one hundred and fifty miles south of Troy, which turned and twisted in the effort to get out of hearing when the Greeks and Trojans boasted of their prowess.

MEDAL, n. A small metal disk given as a reward for virtues, attainments or services more or less authentic. It is related of Bismark, who had been awarded a medal for gallantly rescuing a drowning person, that, being asked the meaning of the medal, he replied: "I save lives sometimes." And sometimes he didn't.

MEDICINE, n. A stone flung down the Bowery to kill a dog in Broadway.

MEEKNESS, n. Uncommon patience in planning a revenge that is worth while.

M is for Moses,

Who slew the Egyptian.
As sweet as a rose is
The meekness of Moses.
No monument shows his
Post-mortem inscription,

But M is for Moses
Who slew the Egyptian.
      —The Biographical Alphabet

MEERSCHAUM, n. (Literally, seafoam, and by many erroneously supposed to be made of it.) A fine white clay, which for convenience in coloring it brown is made into tobacco pipes and smoked by the workmen engaged in that industry. The purpose of coloring it has not been disclosed by the manufacturers.

There was a youth (you've heard before,

This woeful tale, may be),

Who bought a meerschaum pipe and swore
That color it would he!

He shut himself from the world away,

Nor any soul he saw.
He smoke by night, he smoked by day,

As hard as he could draw.

His dog died moaning in the wrath
Of winds that blew aloof;
The weeds were in the gravel path,

The owl was on the roof.

"He's gone afar, he'll come no more,"
The neighbors sadly say.
And so they batter in the door
To take his goods away.

Dead, pipe in mouth, the youngster lay,

Nut-brown in face and limb.
"That pipe's a lovely white," they say,

"But it has colored him!"

The moral there's small need to sing—
'Tis plain as day to you:
Don't play your game on any thing
That is a gamester too.

      —Martin Bulstrode

MENDACIOUS, adj. Addicted to rhetoric.

MERCHANT, n. One engaged in a commercial pursuit. A commercial pursuit is one in which the thing pursued is a dollar.

MERCY, n. An attribute beloved of detected offenders.

MESMERISM, n. Hypnotism before it wore good clothes, kept a carriage and asked Incredulity to dinner.

METROPOLIS, n. A stronghold of provincialism.

MILLENNIUM, n. The period of a thousand years when the lid is to be screwed down, with all reformers on the under side.

MIND, n. A mysterious form of matter secreted by the brain. Its chief activity consists in the endeavor to ascertain its own nature, the futility of the attempt being due to the fact that it has nothing but itself to know itself with. From the Latin mens, a fact unknown to that honest shoe-seller, who, observing that his learned competitor over the way had displayed the motto "Mens conscia recti," emblazoned his own front with the words "Men's, women's and children's conscia recti."

MINE, adj. Belonging to me if I can hold or seize it.

MINISTER, n. An agent of a higher power with a lower responsibility. In diplomacy and officer sent into a foreign country as the visible embodiment of his sovereign's hostility. His principal qualification is a degree of plausible inveracity next below that of an ambassador.

MINOR, adj. Less objectionable.

MINSTREL, adj. Formerly a poet, singer or musician; now a nigger with a color less than skin deep and a humor more than flesh and blood can bear.

MIRACLE, n. An act or event out of the order of nature and unaccountable, as beating a normal hand of four kings and an ace with four aces and a king.

MISCREANT, n. A person of the highest degree of unworth. Etymologically, the word means unbeliever, and its present signification may be regarded as theology's noblest contribution to the development of our language.

MISDEMEANOR, n. An infraction of the law having less dignity than a felony and constituting no claim to admittance into the best criminal society.

By misdemeanors he essays to climb
Into the aristocracy of crime.
O, woe was him!—with manner chill and grand
"Captains of industry" refused his hand,

"Kings of finance" denied him recognition
And "railway magnates" jeered his low condition.
He robbed a bank to make himself respected.
They still rebuffed him, for he was detected.

      —S. V. Hanipur

MISERICORDE, n. A dagger which in mediaeval warfare was used by the foot soldier to remind an unhorsed knight that he was mortal.

MISFORTUNE, n. The kind of fortune that never misses.

MISS, n. The title with which we brand unmarried women to indicate that they are in the market. Miss, Missis (Mrs.) and Mister (Mr.) are the three most distinctly disagreeable words in the language, in sound and sense. Two are corruptions of Mistress, the other of Master. In the general abolition of social titles in this our country they miraculously escaped to plague us. If we must have them let us be consistent and give one to the unmarried man. I venture to suggest Mush, abbreviated to Mh.

MOLECULE, n. The ultimate, indivisible unit of matter. It is distinguished from the corpuscle, also the ultimate, indivisible unit of matter, by a closer resemblance to the atom, also the ultimate, indivisible unit of matter. Three great scientific theories of the structure of the universe are the molecular, the corpuscular and the atomic. A fourth affirms, with Haeckel, the condensation of precipitation of matter from ether—whose existence is proved by the condensation of precipitation. The present trend of scientific thought is toward the theory of ions. The ion differs from the molecule, the corpuscle and the atom in that it is an ion. A fifth theory is held by idiots, but it is doubtful if they know any more about the matter than the others.

MONAD, n. The ultimate, indivisible unit of matter. (See Molecule.) According to Leibnitz, as nearly as he seems willing to be understood, the monad has body without bulk, and mind without manifestation—Leibnitz knows him by the innate power of considering. He has founded upon him a theory of the universe, which the creature bears without resentment, for the monad is a gentleman. Small as he is, the monad contains all the powers and possibilities needful to his evolution into a German philosopher of the first class—altogether a very capable little fellow. He is not to be confounded with the microbe, or bacillus; by its inability to discern him, a good microscope shows him to be of an entirely distinct species.

MONARCH, n. A person engaged in reigning. Formerly the monarch ruled, as the derivation of the word attests, and as many subjects have had occasion to learn. In Russia and the Orient the monarch has still a considerable influence in public affairs and in the disposition of the human head, but in western Europe political administration is mostly entrusted to his ministers, he being somewhat preoccupied with reflections relating to the status of his own head.

MONARCHICAL GOVERNMENT, n. Government.

MONDAY, n. In Christian countries, the day after the baseball game.

MONEY, n. A blessing that is of no advantage to us excepting when we part with it. An evidence of culture and a passport to polite society. Supportable property.

MONKEY, n. An arboreal animal which makes itself at home in genealogical trees.

MONOSYLLABIC, adj. Composed of words of one syllable, for literary babes who never tire of testifying their delight in the vapid compound by appropriate googoogling. The words are commonly Saxon—that is to say, words of a barbarous people destitute of ideas and incapable of any but the most elementary sentiments and emotions.

The man who writes in Saxon
Is the man to use an ax on
Judibras

MONSIGNOR, n. A high ecclesiastical title, of which the Founder of our religion overlooked the advantages.

MONUMENT, n. A structure intended to commemorate something which either needs no commemoration or cannot be commemorated.

The bones of Agammemnon are a show,

And ruined is his royal monument,

but Agammemnon's fame suffers no diminution in consequence. The monument custom has its reductiones ad absurdum in monuments "to the unknown dead"—that is to say, monuments to perpetuate the memory of those who have left no memory.

MORAL, adj. Conforming to a local and mutable standard of right. Having the quality of general expediency.

It is sayd there be a raunge of mountaynes in the Easte, on

one syde of the which certayn conducts are immorall, yet on the other
syde they are holden in good esteeme; wherebye the mountayneer is much
conveenyenced, for it is given to him to goe downe eyther way and act
as it shall suite his moode, withouten offence.
      —Gooke's Meditations

MORE, adj. The comparative degree of too much.

MOUSE, n. An animal which strews its path with fainting women. As in Rome Christians were thrown to the lions, so centuries earlier in Otumwee, the most ancient and famous city of the world, female heretics were thrown to the mice. Jakak-Zotp, the historian, the only Otumwump whose writings have descended to us, says that these martyrs met their death with little dignity and much exertion. He even attempts to exculpate the mice (such is the malice of bigotry) by declaring that the unfortunate women perished, some from exhaustion, some of broken necks from falling over their own feet, and some from lack of restoratives. The mice, he avers, enjoyed the pleasures of the chase with composure. But if "Roman history is nine-tenths lying," we can hardly expect a smaller proportion of that rhetorical figure in the annals of a people capable of so incredible cruelty to a lovely women; for a hard heart has a false tongue.

MOUSQUETAIRE, n. A long glove covering a part of the arm. Worn in New Jersey. But "mousquetaire" is a might poor way to spell muskeeter.

MOUTH, n. In man, the gateway to the soul; in woman, the outlet of the heart.

MUGWUMP, n. In politics one afflicted with self-respect and addicted to the vice of independence. A term of contempt.

MULATTO, n. A child of two races, ashamed of both.

MULTITUDE, n. A crowd; the source of political wisdom and virtue. In a republic, the object of the statesman's adoration."In a multitude of consellors there is wisdom," saith the proverb. If many men of equal individual wisdom are wiser than any one of them, it must be that they acquire the excess of wisdom by the mere act of getting together. Whence comes it? Obviously from nowhere—as well say that a range of mountains is higher than the single mountains composing it. A multitude is as wise as its wisest member if it obey him; if not, it is no wiser than its most foolish.

MUMMY, n. An ancient Egyptian, formerly in universal use among modern civilized nations as medicine, and now engaged in supplying art with an excellent pigment. He is handy, too, in museums in gratifying the vulgar curiosity that serves to distinguish man from the lower animals.

By means of the Mummy, mankind, it is said,

Attests to the gods its respect for the dead.
We plunder his tomb, be he sinner or saint,

Distil him for physic and grind him for paint,

Exhibit for money his poor, shrunken frame,

And with levity flock to the scene of the shame.
O, tell me, ye gods, for the use of my rhyme:
For respecting the dead what's the limit of time?

      —Scopas Brune

MUSTANG, n. An indocile horse of the western plains. In English society, the American wife of an English nobleman.

MYRMIDON, n. A follower of Achilles—particularly when he didn't lead.

MYTHOLOGY, n. The body of a primitive people's beliefs concerning its origin, early history, heroes, deities and so forth, as distinguished from the true accounts which it invents later.


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