Ambrose Bierce / 1842–c. 1914 / Ohio, USA / Poet, Short Story Author, Journalist
Note: All quotations taken from The Devil’s Dictionary (1911).
Achievement, n. The death of endeavor and the birth of disgust.
Admiration, n. Our polite recognition of another’s resemblance to ourselves.
Applause, n. The echo of a platitude.
Back, n. That part of your friend which it is your privilege to contemplate in your adversity.
Blackguard, n. A man whose qualities, prepared for display like a box of berries in a market—the fine ones on top—have been opened on the wrong side. An inverted gentleman.
Bore, n. A person who talks when you wish him to listen.
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.
Christian, n. One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor. One who follows the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.
Consul, n. In American politics, a person who having failed to secure an office from the people is given one by the Administration on condition that he leave the country.
Conversation, n. A fair for the display of minor mental commodities, each exhibitor being too intent upon the arrangement of his own wares to observe those of this neighbor.
Cynic, n. A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.
Dog, n. A kind of additional or subsidiary Deity designed to catch the overflow and surplus of the world’s worship. This Divine Being in some of his smaller and silkier incarnations, takes, in the affection of Woman, the place to which there is no human male aspirant.
Edible, adj. 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.
Education, n. That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.
Exile, n. One who serves his country by residing abroad, yet is not an ambassador.
Handkerchief, n. A small square of silk or linen, used in various ignoble offices about the face and especially serviceable at funerals to conceal the lack of tears.
Hearse, n. Death’s baby-carriage.
Idleness, n. A model farm where the devil experiments with seeds of new sins and promotes the growth of staple vices.
Kilt, n. A costume sometimes worn by Scotchmen in America and Americans in Scotland.
Labor, n. One of the processes by which A acquires property for B.
Litigation, n. A machine which you go into as a pig and come out as a sausage.
Marriage, n. A community consisting of a master, a mistress, and two slaves, making in all, two.
Notoriety, n. The fame of one’s competitor for public honors. The kind of renown most accessible and acceptable to mediocrity.
Prejudice, n. A vagrant opinion without visible means of support.
Telescope, n. A device having a relation to the eye similar to that of the telephone to the ear, enabling distant objects to plague us with a multitude of needless details.
Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens) / 1835–1910 / Missouri, USA / Novelist, Short Story Author, Lecturer, Publisher
“Classic.” A book which people praise and don’t read.Following the Equator (1897).
Death of the Author
The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.Cable from London to the Associated Press, June 1, 1897.
Always do right. This will gratify some people, and astonish the rest.Card sent to the Young People’s Society, Greenpoint Presbyterian Church, Brooklyn, New York, February 16, 1901.
Familiarity breeds contempt—and children.Notebooks (published posthumously in 1935).
Friends and Enemies
It takes your enemy and your friend, working together, to hurt you to the heart; the one to slander you and the other to get the news to you.Following the Equator (1897).
Infrastructure and Superstructure
You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I’ll tell you what his ’pinions is.Corn-Pone Opinions (written in 1901, published posthumously in Europe and Elsewhere in 1923).
Why is it that we rejoice at a birth and grieve at a funeral? It is because we are not the person involved.Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894).
All say, “How hard it is that we have to die”—a strange complaint to come from the mouths of people who have had to live.Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894).
Whoever has lived long enough to find out what life is, knows how deep a dept of gratitude we owe to Adam, the first great benefactor of our race. He brought death into the world.Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894).
Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? and ain’t that a big enough majority in any town?The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885).
Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.Following the Equator (1897).
Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.Following the Equator (1897).
Noise proves nothing. Often a hen who has merely laid an egg cackles as if she had laid an asteroid.Following the Equator (1897).
The widder eats by a bell; she goes to bed by a bell; she gits up by a bell—everything’s so awful reg’lar a body can’t stand it.The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876).
Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894).
I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write to that n—–’s owner and tell where he was; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie—I found that out.
So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn’t know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I’ll go and write the letter—and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:
Miss Watson, your runaway n—– Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send.
I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking—thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ’stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.
It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
“All right, then, I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up.The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885).
The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.Letter to George Bainton, October 15, 1888.
There are several good protections against temptations, but the surest is cowardice.Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894).
Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do. . . . Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876).
Tom appeared on the sidewalk with a bucket of whitewash and a long-handled brush. He surveyed the fence, and all gladness left him and a deep melancholy settled down upon his spirit. Thirty yards of board fence nine feet high. Life to him seemed hollow, and existence but a burden. Sighing, he dipped his brush and passed it along the topmost plank; repeated the operation; did it again; compared the insignificant whitewashed streak with the far-reaching continent of unwhitewashed fence, and sat down on a tree-box discouraged.The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876).