Ambrose Bierce

The Wasp/July 15, 1881

I presume it is correct for the Washington doctors in their bulletins always to say “the President,” instead of “the patient;” but I submit that respectful observance and ceremonious deference are carried too far by an esteemed contemporary in speculating on the probable course of the bullet through “the Executive liver.” I agree that that organ may justly exact a certain deference, but something also is due to common sense.

I recall an even superior instance of toadyism in a London society journal, which, in a two-column article on a slight indisposition of the Queen, said there was “some soreness of the royal (and imperial) throat.” This was about the time that Disraeli had made her Majesty Empress of India, and the words put by the compositor in parentheses were doubtless interlined by the writer as an afterthought, to signalize his memory of that event.

In England, where toadyism is a natural and indigenous growth, rooted in the very natures of the people—a necessary social and political factor which none dares ignore—even so ludicrous a manifestation of mental kow-towing seems less offensive than a milder display of it here, where, in justice to our national character ,be it said, it is rare. It is observable that even the title of “Excellency,” once customary, is falling into disuse. It never had any warrant in law; it was a mere survival of European habit in minds freshly emancipated from European ideas. In another generation it will be defunct, and it is hoped the toadies then extant will not appoint a Memorial Day for garlanding its grave.

When the senseless title “Esquire” shall have flickered a little longer in the dawn of good taste it, too, will expire in its own grease, and the Argonaut will have to adopt another and perhaps clumsier device for marking its sense of the distinction between a rich man and a poor.

I have so often heard this title fluttering on the tongue of the “public speaker” that I am moved to explain to that not usually very well-informed functionary that it can never properly be spoken at all. Its only correct use is as a terminal sputter of the pen in writing a man’s name in the superscription of a letter; and even there the best authority presrcibes that it shall look as little like a title, and as much like a pig’s tail, as possible.

Those horrible words “Mr.,” “Mrs.” and “Miss” will have to “go,” too, some day. The first is a detestable corruption of “Master” and the second of “Mistress.” The last is, I think, the special creation and gift of a Providence bent upon testing human stupidity. It may therefore be called the divine element in our language and should be resented accordingly, as an unwarrantable interference with the laws of growth and evolution. Who’s bossing this language, I should like to know?

I like the beautiful, deliberate way the Russians have of addressing one another by the full name without any prefix: “It is a fine day, Peter Ivanovich. ” “Come, Marie Alexandrovna, let us go.” This seems to me more respectful than substituting for the one name a meaningless title, and more tender than leaving off the other altogether. We seem to be ashamed of our names, somehow, so much so, indeed, that it is hardly “good form” to call one by his name in any public place. I can readily enough understand this in the case of my enemies, most of whose ancestors have been hanged, and who are themselves in terror of arrest; but for my part I was never more pleased than when a man met me the other day in the street, extended his hand and said: “How do you do, Ambrose Bierce?” For a moment I almost wished that were my name.


When Henry Reddan (I suppress

His name with civil thoughtfulness)

Was putting (so the papers say)

His handy Gatling gun away,

He thrust it into his hip pocket

So skillfully that he did cock it,

And when, released, the hammer dropped,

Why, Henry naturally hopped

And made a certain observation

Omitted in the New Translation.

The papers (and they always know)

Explain how that the ball did go

Through the thick part of Henry’s thigh;

A statement that I don’t deny,

But wonder how it is that when

He stands he smiles like other men,

But when like other men he sits

His face has epileptic fits.


I have just been reading the proof of some verses elsewhere in the issue, called, I believe, “A Study in Gray,” and they have recalled to my memory a singularly dismal picture. I do not know if it is the memory of a particular evening or the sum of the memories of many—heaven knows such evenings are common enough in this ghastly town. I am in the ghost of what was once a city. There are long, dim, vistas ending in a blank. The laws of perspective are set aside, and parallel lines running to the horizon do not converge. Objects near at hand are of the natural, those at a distance, of colossal size. The buildings too, are appallingly high and threateningly top-heavy, but they do not overhang. Wan, glimmering lights a half-mile away are passed in a few steps; they rush to meet me, glide rapidly to the rear and in a moment are gone. This ghost of a city is at the bottom of the ghost of an ocean; the eye cannot reach the surface.

I do not perceive any sounds; the silence is terrifying. Nor any living beings; it is a solitude and a desolation. Noises and men—the ghosts of noises and the ghosts of men—there must have been, only memory has not retained them. I am the only fish that swims this dismal sea. I glide on, aimless, hopeless, emotionless, yet with a half-expectant sense of an enchantress somewhere with pallid eye and hair of seaweed. Perhaps she will transform me to a clump of coral.

Suddenly I stop. Looming directly before my eyes is the prow of a great ship moving slowly toward me. It is horrible—she will crush me between her keel and the bottom of the sea! Then I perceive that in place of a stem she has a cigar shop, but the tobacconist has of course been drowned and the crabs are no doubt making merry with his dead eyes. The ship is a tall, triangular building erected on a gore to the right of Market street as you go toward the clouds. I remember that I am indebted to the drowned man’s estate for cigars and by this natural and commonplace circumstance the weird dream is dispelled. I put on my flesh, lay off my gills and inspire a lungful of good, wholesome San Francisco fog. Perhaps I see a few snakes wriggling sinuously away. Maybe they have vacated my boots.

Now, my little dears, pay close attention to the lecture. We will take this word Ireland. It is readily separated into two parts of speech, the noun “land” and the adjective “ire.” It is the land of ire, a name given it because of the belligerent character of its inhabitants, who are always fighting mad. Denny Kearney, put down that chalk or I’ll keep you in after school hours.

Now the adjective “ire” has degrees of comparison—thus: diminutive, irish; positive, ire; comparative, irer; superlative, irest. You will observe that the diminutive form of this word is the one in common use: we call the inhabitants the “Irish” people, thus with great civility recognizing their very mildest mood, and if that Mannix boy doesn’t stop whittling his desk there will be trouble in this classroom directly.

By a new combination of this adjective with the noun “man” we have the word “Irishman,” and might also have the words Ireman, Irerman and Irestman; only the human mind has not the courage to even contemplate such degrees of irascibility as these would imply. The existence of a single Irestman would imperil the stability of Christian civilization. Johnny Murphy, you dare to throw that spitball!

The class in Philology is now dismissed, but if Tommy Desmond and Jimmy Mulcahy get to fighting on the way home I’ll crack their heads together to-morrow morning, that’s all. B.