The Devil’s Dictionary

Ambrose Bierce

The Wasp/August 14, 1886

LEVELER, n. The kind of political and social reformer who is more concerned to bring others down to his plane than to lift himself to theirs.

LEVIATHAN, n. An enormous aquatic animal mentioned by Job. Some suppose it to have been the whale, but that distinguished ichthyologer, Professor Joseph D. Redding, maintains with some heat that it was a species of gigantic Tadpole (Thaddeus Polandensis) or Polliwig—Maria hirsuta. (For a complete description and history of the Tad Pole consult the famous monograph by Miss Jane Porter entitled Thaddeus of Warsaw. Mr. Redding himself has not been exhaustively described. )

LEVITE, n. A descendant of Levi, from whose posterity the Lord ordained all the Jewish priests—an instance of nepotism deserving of the severest censure, as incompatible with free institutions and the principle of civil and religious equality.

LEXICOGAPHER, n. A pestilent fellow who, under the pretense of recording some particular stage in the development of a language, does what he can to arrest its growth, stiffen its flexibility and mechanize its methods. For your lexicographer having written his dictionary comes to be considered “as one having authority,” whereas his function is only to make a record, not to give a law. The natural servility of the human understanding having invested him with judicial power, surrenders its right of reason and submits itself to a chronicle as if it were a statute. Let the dictionary (for example) mark a good word as “obsolete “ or “obsolescent” and no man thereafter ventures to use it, whatever his need of it and however desirable its restoration to favor—whereby the process of impoverishment is accelerated and speech decays. On the other hand, the bold and discerning writer who, recognizing the truth that language must grow by innovation if it grow at all, makes new words and uses the old in an unfamiliar sense has no following and is tartly reminded that “it isn’t in the dictionary”—although down to the time of Dr. Johnson (whom may Heaven forgive!) no English author ever had used a word which was in the dictionary. In the golden prime and high noon of English speech; when from the lips of the great Elizabethans fell words winch made their own meaning and carried it in their very sound; when a Shakespeare and a Bacon were possible and the language now rapidly perishing at one end and slowly renewed at the other was in vigorous growth and hardy preservation—sweeter than honey and stronger than a lion—the lexicographer was a person unknown, the dictionary a creation which his Creator had not created him to create.

God said: “Let Spirit perish into Form,”
And lexicographers arose, a swarm

Thought fled and left her clothing, which they took
And catalogued each garment in a book.
Now from the leafy covert when she cries:
“Give me my clothes and I’ll return,” they rise
And scan the list, and say without compassion:
“Excuse us—they are mostly out of fashion.”

LIAR, n. An attorney with a roving profession. A journalist of any occupation, trade or calling.—See PREACHER.

LIBELOUS, adj. In the nature of an unprivileged excommunication.

LIBERTARIAN, n. One who is compelled by the evidence to believe in free-will, and whose will is therefore free to reject that doctrine.

LIBERTINE, n. Literally a freedman; hence, one who is in bondage to his passions.

LIBERTY, n. One of Imagination’s most precious possessions.
The rising People, hot and out of breath,
Roared round the palace: “Liberty or death!”
“If death will do,” the King said, “let me reign;
You’ll have, I’m sure, no reason to complain.”

LICKSPITTLE, n. A useful functionary, not infrequently found editing a newspaper. In his character of editor he is closely allied to the Blackmailer by the tie of occasional identity; for in truth the Lickspittle is only the Blackmailer under another aspect, though the latter is frequently found as an independent species. Lickspittling is more detestable than blackmailing, precisely as the business of a confidence man is more detestable than that of a highway robber; and the parallel maintains itself throughout, for whereas many robbers will not cheat, every sneak will plunder if he dare. To both forms of exaction the rich are peculiarly exposed.

A Picture
A spotless honor and a fair renown;
Two disconcerted fiends, grown sick and sicker:
Detraction throwing all his tar-sticks down
And Sycophancy scabbarding his licker.


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