The Devil’s Dictionary


In 1911, the American writer and satirist Ambrose Bierce published The Devil’s Dictionary, a collection of amusing and witty definitions. Here is a small selection:

ADMIRATION, n.  Our polite recognition of another’s resemblance to ourselves.

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.

GRAMMAR, n. A system of pitfalls thoughtfully prepared for the feet for the self-made man, along the path by which he advances to distinction.

HAND, n. A singular instrument worn at the end of the human arm and commonly thrust into somebody’s pocket.

HOMICIDE, n. The slaying of one human being by another. There are four kinds of homocide: felonious, excusable, justifiable, and praiseworthy, but it makes no great difference to the person slain whether he fell by one kind or another—the classification is for advantage of the lawyers.

IMMIGRANT, n. An unenlightened person who thinks one country better than another.

PATIENCE, n. A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.

TWICE, adv. Once too often.

Perhaps Bierce was destined to write this work. He was the tenth of thirteen children and all their names all began with an A (Abigail, Amelia, Ann, Addison, Aurelius, etc.). Let’s hope his parents were not planning to get to the rest of the alphabet.


Writing is a continual process of defining one’s meaning. We distinguish between denotation and connotation, we drill down for an etymology, we single out a nuance or application. It is a real skill to capture the essence of a word in a startling manner. Sometimes a witty definition is more revealing than an exact one.

Here, for instance, is how G. K. Chesterton defines a Puritan, in his book on George Bernard Shaw: “A Puritan meant originally a man whose mind had no holidays.” Chesterton could have simply written that a Puritan must always remain vigilant or serious, but the effect would not have been the same.

Bierce’s definitions, sampled above, also function as a form of social satire. The definition of grammar reveals how an artificial body of rules about language hurts the aspirations of people without formal education. His definition of immigrant makes us think about the motivation for moving to another country.

Be careful though: some definitions have lost their originality and now sound hackneyed. Nobody wants to hear that a dog is man’s best friend, or that laughter is the best medicine.

In this exercise, you’re asked to provide interesting and clever definitions of the following words (your instructor might provide additional ones):

  • Coffee
  • Irony
  • Hypocrisy
  • Osmosis
  • Gluttony
  • Culture
  • Gap year
  • iPhone
  • Anarchist
  • Infatuation

As you work on these, first consult the traditional dictionary definitions. Then, see if you can’t come up with something more clever. Have fun!