Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary – W X Y Z

W

W (double U) has, of all the letters in our alphabet, the only cumbrous name, the names of the others being monosyllabic. This advantage of the Roman alphabet over the Grecian is the more valued after audibly spelling out some simple Greek word, like epixoriambikos . Still, it is now thought by the learned that other agencies than the difference of the two alphabets may have been concerned in the decline of “the glory that was Greece” and the rise of “the grandeur that was Rome.” There can be no doubt, however, that by simplifying the name of W (calling it “wow,” for example) our civilization could be, if not promoted, at least better endured.

WALL STREET, n. A symbol for sin for every devil to rebuke. That Wall Street is a den of thieves is a belief that serves every unsuccessful thief in place of a hope in Heaven. Even the great and good Andrew Carnegie has made his profession of faith in the matter.

WAR, n. A by-product of the arts of peace. The most menacing political condition is a period of international amity. The student of history who has not been taught to expect the unexpected may justly boast himself inaccessible to the light. “In time of peace prepare for war” has a deeper meaning than is commonly discerned; it means, not merely that all things earthly have an end — that change is the one immutable and eternal law — but that the soil of peace is thickly sown with the seeds of war and singularly suited to their germination and growth.

WASHINGTONIAN, n. A Potomac tribesman who exchanged the privilege of governing himself for the advantage of good government. In justice to him it should be said that he did not want to.

WEAKNESSES, n.pl. Certain primal powers of Tyrant Woman wherewith she holds dominion over the male of her species, binding him to the service of her will and paralyzing his rebellious energies.

WEATHER, n. The climate of the hour. A permanent topic of conversation among persons whom it does not interest, but who have inherited the tendency to chatter about it from naked arboreal ancestors whom it keenly concerned. The setting up official weather bureaus and their maintenance in mendacity prove that even governments are accessible to suasion by the rude forefathers of the jungle.

WEDDING, n. A ceremony at which two persons undertake to become one, one undertakes to become nothing, and nothing undertakes to become supportable.

WEREWOLF, n. A wolf that was once, or is sometimes, a man. All werewolves are of evil disposition, having assumed a bestial form to gratify a beastial appetite, but some, transformed by sorcery, are as humane and is consistent with an acquired taste for human flesh. Some Bavarian peasants having caught a wolf one evening, tied it to a post by the tail and went to bed. The next morning nothing was there! Greatly perplexed, they consulted the local priest, who told them that their captive was undoubtedly a werewolf and had resumed its human for during the night. “The next time that you take a wolf,” the good man said, “see that you chain it by the leg, and in the morning you will find a Lutheran.”

WHEAT, n. A cereal from which a tolerably good whisky can with some difficulty be made, and which is used also for bread. The French are said to eat more bread per capita of population than any other people, which is natural, for only they know how to make the stuff palatable.

WIDOW, n. A pathetic figure that the Christian world has agreed to take humorously, although Christ’s tenderness towards widows was one of the most marked features of his character.

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.

WIT, n. The salt with which the American humorist spoils his intellectual cookery by leaving it out.

WITCH, n. (1) Any ugly and repulsive old woman, in a wicked league with the devil. (2) A beautiful and attractive young woman, in wickedness a league beyond the devil.

WITTICISM, n. A sharp and clever remark, usually quoted, and seldom noted; what the Philistine is pleased to call a “joke.”

WORMS’-MEAT, n. The finished product of which we are the raw material. The contents of the Taj Mahal, the Tombeau Napoleon and the Granitarium. Worms’-meat is usually outlasted by the structure that houses it, but “this too must pass away.” Probably the silliest work in which a human being can engage is construction of a tomb for himself. The solemn purpose cannot dignify, but only accentuates by contrast the foreknown futility.

WORSHIP, n. Homo Creator’s testimony to the sound construction and fine finish of Deus Creatus. A popular form of abjection, having an element of pride.

WRATH, n. Anger of a superior quality and degree, appropriate to exalted characters and momentous occasions; as, “the wrath of God,” “the day of wrath,” etc. Amongst the ancients the wrath of kings was deemed sacred, for it could usually command the agency of some god for its fit manifestation, as could also that of a priest. The Greeks before Troy were so harried by Apollo that they jumped out of the frying-pan of the wrath of Cryses into the fire of the wrath of Achilles, though Agamemnon, the sole offender, was neither fried nor roasted. A similar noted immunity was that of David when he incurred the wrath of Yahveh by numbering his people, seventy thousand of whom paid the penalty with their lives. God is now Love, and a director of the census performs his work without apprehension of disaster.

X

X in our alphabet being a needless letter has an added invincibility to the attacks of the spelling reformers, and like them, will doubtless last as long as the language. X is the sacred symbol of ten dollars, and in such words as Xmas, Xn, etc., stands for Christ, not, as is popular supposed, because it represents a cross, but because the corresponding letter in the Greek alphabet is the initial of his name — Xristos . If it represented a cross it would stand for St. Andrew, who “testified” upon one of that shape. In the algebra of psychology x stands for Woman’s mind. Words beginning with X are Grecian and will not be defined in this standard English dictionary.

Y

YANKEE, n. In Europe, an American. In the Northern States of our Union, a New Englander. In the Southern States the word is unknown. (See DAMNYANK.)

YEAR, n. A period of three hundred and sixty-five disappointments.

YESTERDAY, n. The infancy of youth, the youth of manhood, the entire past of age.

YOKE, n. An implement, madam, to whose Latin name, jugum , we owe one of the most illuminating words in our language — a word that defines the matrimonial situation with precision, point and poignancy. A thousand apologies for withholding it.

YOUTH, n. The Period of Possibility, when Archimedes finds a fulcrum, Cassandra has a following and seven cities compete for the honor of endowing a living Homer.

Z

ZANY, n. A popular character in old Italian plays, who imitated with ludicrous incompetence the buffone , or clown, and was therefore the ape of an ape; for the clown himself imitated the serious characters of the play. The zany was progenitor to the specialist in humor, as we to-day have the unhappiness to know him. In the zany we see an example of creation; in the humorist, of transmission. Another excellent specimen of the modern zany is the curate, who apes the rector, who apes the bishop, who apes the archbishop, who apes the devil.

ZANZIBARI, n. An inhabitant of the Sultanate of Zanzibar, off the eastern coast of Africa. The Zanzibaris, a warlike people, are best known in this country through a threatening diplomatic incident that occurred a few years ago. The American consul at the capital occupied a dwelling that faced the sea, with a sandy beach between. Greatly to the scandal of this official’s family, and against repeated remonstrances of the official himself, the people of the city persisted in using the beach for bathing. One day a woman came down to the edge of the water and was stooping to remove her attire (a pair of sandals) when the consul, incensed beyond restraint, fired a charge of bird-shot into the most conspicuous part of her person. Unfortunately for the existing entente cordiale between two great nations, she was the Sultana.

ZEAL, n. A certain nervous disorder afflicting the young and inexperienced. A passion that goeth before a sprawl.

ZENITH, n. The point in the heavens directly overhead to a man standing or a growing cabbage. A man in bed or a cabbage in the pot is not considered as having a zenith, though from this view of the matter there was once a considerably dissent among the learned, some holding that the posture of the body was immaterial. These were called Horizontalists, their opponents, Verticalists. The Horizontalist heresy was finally extinguished by Xanobus, the philosopher-king of Abara, a zealous Verticalist. Entering an assembly of philosophers who were debating the matter, he cast a severed human head at the feet of his opponents and asked them to determine its zenith, explaining that its body was hanging by the heels outside. Observing that it was the head of their leader, the Horizontalists hastened to profess themselves converted to whatever opinion the Crown might be pleased to hold, and Horizontalism took its place among fides defuncti .

ZEUS, n. The chief of Grecian gods, adored by the Romans as Jupiter and by the modern Americans as God, Gold, Mob and Dog. Some explorers who have touched upon the shores of America, and one who professes to have penetrated a considerable distance to the interior, have thought that these four names stand for as many distinct deities, but in his monumental work on Surviving Faiths, Frumpp insists that the natives are monotheists, each having no other god than himself, whom he worships under many sacred names.

ZIGZAG, v.t. To move forward uncertainly, from side to side, as one carrying the white man’s burden. (From zed , z , and jag , an Icelandic word of unknown meaning.)

ZOOLOGY, n. The science and history of the animal kingdom, including its king, the House Fly ( Musca maledicta ). The father of Zoology was Aristotle, as is universally conceded, but the name of its mother has not come down to us. Two of the science’s most illustrious expounders were Buffon and Oliver Goldsmith, from both of whom we learn ( L’Histoire generale des animaux and A History of Animated Nature ) that the domestic cow sheds its horn every two years.