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AN 18th CENTURY "DEVIL'S DICTIONARY"


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Ambrose Bierce's late-19th-century Devil's Dictionary revived, in a sense, the style of lexicography championed by Samuel Johnson in his classic Dictionary of the English Language (1755), which based definitions as much on opinion as scientific analysis. The following extract from the Cumberland Magazine, October 1778, shows that Bierce was by no means the first to propose an ultra-cynical take on the Johnsonian style. Though I have had to provide in [square brackets] the "true" definitions of some of the buzz-words of the 1770s, the underlying observation of the way society works is worryingly relevant even in the 21st century.



To the Editor of the Cumberland Magazine.
D---ne, Oct. 9.

S I R,
IN the course of reading many of your interesting and ingenious essays, as well as other modern works, and also in conversation with people of taste who travel our road, I have been frequently at a stand to comprehend the full meaning of many fashionable expressions, and the ideas annexed to them, and being in company with a friend the other evening over a bottle, who is perfectly acquainted with the polite world, I prevailed upon him to give me a brief vocabulary of many words and sentences that often occur in elegant life, and to which we who live at a distance from the town, cannot be early acquainted with. As I received considerable instruction from this vocabulary, I here transmit it to you for the benefit of such of your readers as may be in the same predicament as myself.
I have not confined myself strictly to alphabetical order, as in the fashionable world I find what should be the first thing often is the last, and the last the first, and therefore, as consistency would, in this respect, be incompatible, I shall, without further preface, here present you with it.

I am, Sir,
Your constant reader,
A wou'd be Man of Mode


Adultery- A very fashionable amusement for married ladies.

Advice- Ridiculous to be given, and more ridiculous to be taken.

Admonition- An unfashionable word that is out of use.

Address- The art of insinuating one's self into the good graces of a great man or a fine woman.

Abuse- The life of conversation.

Adroitness- The art of cheating in a polite manner, and without detection.

Ambuscade- In love, as in war, is taking the enemy by surprise at play it is lying in wait for a pigeon.

Abilities- Those talents that make a man respectable by duplicity, hypocrisy, and chicane.

Amours- Are those refined dalliances with the fair sex, which the long-robed gentry have deemed unlawful.

Ambition- A noble emanation of the soul to cut a respectable figure in life at the expence of your coach-maker, jeweller, taylor, &c. &c.

Alliance- In the marriage state implies a convenient connubial connection, without the least love or affection on either side, for the advancing of your fortune and ennobling of your family.

Adulation- That necessary hypocrisy requisite to create a patron, or obtain a mistress. It requires some acquaintance with Machiavel's principles, or at least, to have read Lord Chesterfield's Letters with attention.

Adversity- That state in which all men, women, and children should be shunned and despised.

Admiration !- This, though generally distinguished by a note ! requires no farther note ! than that it cannot be introduced too often at a great man's levee, or a fine woman's toilette.

Adieu- An expression very proper to be used to all the impertinence of prudes, the exhortations of moralists, the remarks of the reformers of manners, pulpit oratory, sermonizing discourses, dull precepts, dry reasoning, and disagreeable reflections.

Beauty- The chief object and envy of all women, and the adoration of all men; to which every female votary should sacrifice health, decency and even cleanliness, as many of the most capital heads and reigning toasts of this kingdom can with truth testify.

Bien sťance- That accomplished effrontery which makes a man or woman say or do the most impudent and impertinent, things with ease and politeness ["true" definition: decorum or propriety].

Bashfulness- A most enormous crime, totally banished from the regions of taste and elegance.

Benevolence- That unremitted care and attention which should be paid to monkies, lap-dogs, and parrots, in preference to all the rest of the creation.

Back-biting- An antiquated word for slander, to which we refer the reader [i.e. in a "proper" dictionary].

Beau- An old fashioned name for a macaroni.

Boasting- A very necessary qualification for a man of real or imaginary valour, especially if he be in the army.

Bijoux indiscrets- Pretty baubles for the ladies, much in vogue at boarding-schools, but in little estimation out of those seminaries [French: "indiscreet gems"].

Business- The great study of life amongst the beau-monde, divided between the toilette, the tea-table, the opera, and the quadrille table.

Bigamy- Frequently a very useful repetition of matrimonial alliances to a man of spirit in distress.

Brutality- An utter ignorance of the graces and the tons which qualify a man for good company and the polite world.

Bravo !- An Italian word very expressive of applause, and is frequently used when a woman makes a trip either into or out of the marriage bed.

Bel Dame- An antiquated maid, who gives lectures upon the depravity of the age, and secretly laments that she has no charms to captivate, and no opportunities of being as wicked (as she calls it) as the best of us.

Charity- A cold, inanimate, word, that was much in vogue the latter end of the last, and the beginning of the present century, but is now only used for the sake of ostentation, in the lists of public benefactions.

Chastity- A ha! ha! all sunk, to nothing. Spoken off by the ancients, who were so weak as to make her a goddess! but she has long since been banished all polite circles, and is compelled to keep no other company than her hounds.

Civility- A bourgeois kind of politesse.

Character- Another queer word, when applied to a female, and was formerly synonimous with Chastity, but both words, in that sense, have lost all their meaning.

Captivate- To captivate, the insatiable rage of every fine woman.

Coxcomb- and Petit Maitre- are now happily blended in the present macaroni [both mean a fop].

Cuckold- What every female of spirit is emulous of making her husband.

Chicane- A very necessary qualification in many departments of life for both sexes particularly all those who handle a pack of cards, or shake a dice-box.

Curiosity- A very amiable recommendation in a woman, but insupportable in a husband.

Ceremony- The etiquette of drawing rooms, levees, and ruelles, according to the most polished system of good breeding, in which fawning and grimace supply the place of sincerity and old English frankness.

Coquetry- A very necessary science for every woman of taste, according to the last improved system as settled at Bath, Scarborough, &c.

Cicisbeo- A useful member of society, who supplies the place of a good natured husband, and the wants of a good natured wife.
Cher Ami- Nearly synonimous with the former, with this difference, that the first pays his devoirs according to the Italian, the latter according to the French taste [the idea of married women being openly accompanied by a male admirer was much more popular on the Continent than in England].

Connoisseur- An adept at cards and other games, who understands all the operations and manoeuvres as taught by Jonas and the rest of his fraternity. Also a bad judge of bad pictures

Caution- Quite needless in the marriage state.

Dilettanti- The chosen few who have established their reputation for their exquisite taste and judgment in the polite arts, having travelled at great expence to know a modern from an antient antique, and a Corregio of Harp Alley from an original of that great master.

Dramatic Writers- The modern herd of pilferers from the French and Italian, who anglicize characters that were never intended for the English stage, and their productions have all the requisites for the drama, except fable, business, character, dialogue, denouement, and catasrophe.

Demi-rep- A much esteemed character in the polite female world. She may be compared to Mahomet's tomb, suspended between earth and heaven, as she is between vice and virtue, chastity and infamy [or as Henry Fielding put it a generation earlier, in Tom Jones, a woman "whom every body knows to be what no body calls her"].

Duellist- The modern champion for fame, who picks quarrels for the sake of mutual honour, and has the address of wounding coats and hats at a convenient distance, without any bodily danger to either party.

Dentist- A fashionable appendage of the toilette, who easily makes his way from behind a chariot into it, and thrives, in spite of tooth wort, upon bones and stumps.

Delicacy- That nice distinction upon every occasion that denotes the fine gentleman.

Debauchery- A polite system of diurnal and nocturnal revels.

Duplicity- The celebrated and most essential art in politics and intrigue, of displaying two faces, as established by Janus, the god of peace and war, and judiciously defined by the late lord Chesterfield.

Divorce- The most agreeable and commodious end of matrimony.

Etiquette- The most essential requisite of a man of taste, to be studied only in the schools of grace and politeness.

Egotism- An useful figure of speech to display a person's own consequence.

Education- In men, dancing, fencing, gaming, drinking, &c.
  In women, music, dancing, ogling, quadrille, and intriguing; the happy application of cosmetics, and the other requisites of the toilette, rouge and blanc not excepted.

Essence of politeness- That subtle and refined extract from all that is fashionable, elegant, and desirable in the great world.

Evergreen- A lady, who by dint of art, preserves her complection and the appearance of youth till sixty.

Favours- Those kind of indulgences spontaneously bestowed by the fair sex.

Fashion- Whatever is established by the coteries of both sexes.

Fainting- Very necessary to be introduced upon critical occasions.

Fright- A female, pretty or not pretty, who does not improve her complection by art, does not wear a head above a foot high, and has not adopted a cork-rump.

Gambling- The art of living genteely, without a visible means, or as Count Basset says, driving one's charriot upon the four aces.

Gaming- A softer word for the same profession.

Gamester- Every man of taste, and every woman of spirit upon the haut ton.

Government- What no woman should submit to from a husband.

Good-natured- What every woman should be to her cher ami, but never to her husband.

Good-breeding- An old fashioned word for politesse.

Good harmony, for the same reason, should never subsist at home.

Good luck- When a sprightly female cornutes [cuckolds] her husband before the honey-moon is over.

Good fortune- For a woman to marry a rich man whom she completely abhors.

Husband- A domestic animal, that may be useful, particularly in money matters.

Honour- Paying one's gaming debts, debauching a friend's wife or daughter, and then running him through the body.

Hypocrisy- A very useful ingredient in the world.

Hush-money- Frequently necessary to be given to servants to prevent the detection of an intrigue, before it is ripe for the public's information.

Happiness- Being the toast at all bacchanalian revels, envied by the rest of the sex, for having the handsomest fellows in the train of her admirers, and being scandal proof.

Head dress- Its altitude, according to the last approved standard, is two feet feven inches.

Housewife- A most contemptible, unfashionable animal, being nowhere to be met with but at a farmer's or a country parson's fire side.

Infatuation- The present state of the times, fashions, manners, and morals, being all so refined that they infatuate our senses even to phrenzy.

Infamy- That state in which a woman cannot get a handsome gallant to convince the world her husband is properly branched with antlers.

Inconstancy- The chief felicity of matrimony.

Intrigue- The very zest of delight.

Indiscretion- Obsolete

Indifference- The polite state of wed lock three days after marriage.

Jealousy- Unknown to the polite world.

Keeping- A connection founded upon pecuniary advantages on the side of the female, who despises her supporter for his folly and extravagance.

Ladies- Every women who wears a trolloppee, a sacque and petticoat, or a calache [tricky- is the implication that these items are all out of fashion?].

Licentousness- Quite unknown in these times.

Macaroni- The most approved character upon the ton, who dresses according to the most superlative taste, and leads the fashion in every particular [specifically, a follower of the latest European fashions].

Mental accomplishments- The art of pleasing a first-rate toast [a much-admired young woman], and being a toad eater to a great man [ancestor of the modern word "toady"].

Nobody- All England, except about a thousand macaronies, and twelve hundred women of superlative taste.

Nobility- The most learned, enlightened, virtuous, generous, and affable race of people in the known world.

Opportunity- That lucky moment when a woman yields herself to the man she likes.

Old age- The most detestable state in this world.

Point [misprint for Paint?]- Scandalum magnatum! blanc and rouge coming under the denomination of cosmetics.

Prudery- False modesty, which generally veils the most criminal inclinations.

Politesse- The essence of address, the study of the graces, and a thorough knowledge of the ton; being the only passport to elegant Company.

Quality- See Nobility.

Ruelle- A woman of fashion's bed-side, where a man of gallantry may take almost any liberties with impunity [a French institution, a bedroom with seating etc. for visitors].

Rivals- Beings that are thus modeled to gratify a woman's vanity and ambition, especially if she can excite a quarrel in which one of the combatants should fall, to honour her memory and the power of her charms.

Seduction- The great art of gaining a woman's affections, under pretence of being deeply enamoured with her, when at the same time you despise the victim for her vanity and weakness.

Shame- The want of money and the want of conquests.

Sincerity- A misnomer for duplicity.

Scandal- The very life and soul of conversation.

Sunday- The properest day in the whole week for cards, &c. &c. &c.

Suicide-The fashionable method of retiring from life when a man has lost his fortune and credit.

Ton- An exact and invariable pursuit of every thing that is fashionable, polite, and elegant, as established in the most brilliant circles [originally just a fashionable French word for fashion].
  Bon Ton- The comparative,
  Haut Ton- The superlative degree.

Ugliness- Exterminated by Warren and Baily [anybody know who they were?].

Vice- A monster that has long since been hunted down and destroyed.

Virtue- A phantom, a chimera, an ignis fatuus that bewilders the old, the decrepid, and deformed, but is never observed by the young, the gay, the spirited, and, in a word, the Ton.