Today’s words come to us from early 20th century writer and satirist, Ambrose Bierce. Born in 1842, Bierce was the oldest of 13 children, all with first names beginning with the letter A (which makes monogrammed hand-me-downs a breeze). Bierce left home at the age of 15 to become a printer’s devil (an apprentice, who does stuff like ink mixing and type fetching) at an Ohio newspaper.
In 1861, Bierce enlisted in the Union Army. Bierce fought in numerous Civil War battles, and saw devastating combat at the battles of Shiloh (when both sides realized the Civil War was going to be long and bloody) and Chickamauga (the second bloodiest battle of the war, after Gettysburg). Bierce’s Civil War experiences had a profound effect on his writing. His caustic and sarcastic wit earned him the nickname, Bitter Bierce.
In 1906, Bierce published a satirical lexicon called, The Cynic’s Word Book. It was later renamed, The Devil’s Dictionary. It’s glorious from cover to cover, but I was hooked with the introduction:
[This work] is addressed to the enlightened souls who prefer dry wines to sweet, sense to sentiment, wit to humor and clean English to slang.
Here are just a few highlights:
Bore, n. A person who talks when you wish him to listen.
Botany, n. The science of vegetables—those that are not good to eat, as well as those that are. It deals largely with their flowers, which are commonly badly designed, inartistic in color, and ill-smelling.
Brandy, n. A cordial composed of one part thunder-and-lightning, one part remorse, two parts bloody murder, one part death-hell-and-the-grave and four parts clarified Satan.
Connoisseur, n. A specialist who knows everything about something and nothing about anything else.
Sweater, n. Garment worn by a child when his mother is feeling chilly. (I laughed out loud when I read that one — because I swear, my Grandma Helen’s motto was, “I’m cold. You should put on a sweater“).
Wine, 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.