Ambrose Bierce: The Letter P

The real Ambrose Bierce?

Our good friend Edgar Lores has reminded us of the import of the letter P. Indeed, the letter P is one we would have a hard time doing without.

Here are some excerPts from “The Devil’s Dictionary” by our long-gone whacko American friend Ambrose Bierce.  If the words dance unintelligibly on the lip, keep reading, and by the end, you, too, will be speaking in a high-minded way that amazes and confounds your listeners.  You don’t even have to know what you are talking about.

PAIN, n.  An uncomfortable frame of mind that may have a physical basis in something that is being done to the body, or may be purely mental, caused by the good fortune of another.

PAINTING, n.  The art of protecting flat surfaces from the weather and exposing them to the critic.

PARDON, v.  To remit a penalty and restore to the life of crime.  To add to the lure of crime the temptation of ingratitude.

PASSPORT, n.  A document treacherously inflicted upon a citizen going abroad, exposing him as an alien and pointing him out for special reprobation and outrage.

PAST, n.  That part of Eternity with some small fraction of which we have a slight and regrettable acquaintance.  A moving line called the Present parts it from an imaginary period known as the Future.  These two grand divisions of Eternity, of which the one is continually effacing the other, are entirely unlike.  The one is dark with sorrow and disappointment, the other bright with prosperity and joy.  The Past is the region of sobs, the Future is the realm of song.  In the one crouches Memory, clad in sackcloth and ashes, mumbling penitential prayer; in the sunshine of the other Hope flies with a free wing, beckoning to temples of success and bowers of ease.  Yet the Past is the Future of yesterday, the Future is the Past of to-morrow.  They are one–the knowledge and the dream.

PATIENCE, n.  A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.

PATRIOT, n.  One to whom the interests of a part seem superior to those of the whole.  The dupe of statesmen and the tool of conquerors.

PATRIOTISM, n.  Combustible rubbish read to the torch of any one ambitious to illuminate his name.

In Dr. Johnson’s famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel.  With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer I beg to submit that it is the first.

PEACE, n.  In international affairs, a period of cheating between two periods of fighting.

PERSEVERANCE, n.  A lowly virtue whereby mediocrity achieves an inglorious success.

  “Persevere, persevere!” cry the homilists all,
  Themselves, day and night, persevering to bawl.
  “Remember the fable of tortoise and hare–
  The one at the goal while the other is–where?”
  Why, back there in Dreamland, renewing his lease
  Of life, all his muscles preserving the peace,
  The goal and the rival forgotten alike,
  And the long fatigue of the needless hike.
  His spirit a-squat in the grass and the dew
  Of the dogless Land beyond the Stew,
  He sleeps, like a saint in a holy place,
  A winner of all that is good in a race.

Sukker Uffro

PESSIMISM, n.  A philosophy forced upon the convictions of the observer by the disheartening prevalence of the optimist with his scarecrow hope and his unsightly smile.

PHILANTHROPIST, n.  A rich (and usually bald) old gentleman who has trained himself to grin while his conscience is picking his pocket.

PHILOSOPHY, n.  A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.

PHYSICIAN, n.  One upon whom we set our hopes when ill and our dogs when well.

PIANO, n.  A parlor utensil for subduing the impenitent visitor.  It is operated by pressing the keys of the machine and the spirits of the audience.

PIETY, n.  Reverence for the Supreme Being, based upon His supposed resemblance to man.

  The pig is taught by sermons and epistles
  To think the God of Swine has snout and bristles.


PIGMY, n.  One of a tribe of very small men found by ancient travelers in many parts of the world, but by modern in Central Africa only.  The Pigmies are so called to distinguish them from the bulkier Caucasians –who are Hogmies.

PITIFUL, adj.  The state of an enemy of opponent after an imaginary encounter with oneself.

PLAGIARIZE, v.  To take the thought or style of another writer whom one has never, never read.

PLAN, v.t.  To bother about the best method of accomplishing an accidental result.

PLATITUDE, n.  The fundamental element and special glory of popular literature. A thought that snores in words that smoke.  The wisdom of a million fools in the diction of a dullard.  A fossil sentiment in artificial rock.  A moral without the fable.  All that is mortal of a departed truth.  A demi-tasse of milk-and-mortality.  The Pope’s-nose of a featherless peacock.  A jelly-fish withering on the shore of the sea of thought.  The cackle surviving the egg.  A desiccated epigram.

PLAUDITS, n.  Coins with which the populace pays those who tickle and devour it.

PLEASE, v.  To lay the foundation for a superstructure of imposition.

PLEASURE, n.  The least hateful form of dejection.

PLUNDER, v.  To take the property of another without observing the decent and customary reticences of theft.  To effect a change of ownership with the candid concomitance of a brass band.  To wrest the wealth of A from B and leave C lamenting a vanishing opportunity.

POCKET, n.  The cradle of motive and the grave of conscience.  In woman this organ is lacking; so she acts without motive, and her conscience, denied burial, remains ever alive, confessing the sins of others.

POLICE, n.  An armed force for protection and participation.

POLITENESS, n.  The most acceptable hypocrisy.

POLITICS, n.  A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles.  The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.

POLITICIAN, n.  An eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared.  When we wriggles he mistakes the agitation of his tail for the trembling of the edifice. As compared with the statesman, he suffers the disadvantage of being alive.

POSITIVE, adj.  Mistaken at the top of one’s voice.

POSITIVISM, n.  A philosophy that denies our knowledge of the Real and affirms our ignorance of the Apparent.  Its longest exponent is Comte, its broadest Mill and its thickest Spencer.

POVERTY, n.  A file provided for the teeth of the rats of reform.  The number of plans for its abolition equals that of the reformers who suffer from it, plus that of the philosophers who know nothing about it.  Its victims are distinguished by possession of all the virtues and by their faith in leaders seeking to conduct them into a prosperity where they believe these to be unknown.

PRAY, v.  To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.

PREDILECTION, n.  The preparatory stage of disillusion.

PRE-EXISTENCE, n.  An unnoted factor in creation.

PREFERENCE, n.  A sentiment, or frame of mind, induced by the erroneous belief that one thing is better than another.

An ancient philosopher, expounding his conviction that life is no
better than death, was asked by a disciple why, then, he did not die.
“Because,” he replied, “death is no better than life.”

It is longer.

PREJUDICE, n.  A vagrant opinion without visible means of support.

PRELATE, n.  A church officer having a superior degree of holiness and a fat preferment.  One of Heaven’s aristocracy.  A gentleman of God.

PREROGATIVE, n.  A sovereign’s right to do wrong.

PRESCRIPTION, n.  A physician’s guess at what will best prolong the situation with least harm to the patient.

PRESENT, n.  That part of eternity dividing the domain of disappointment from the realm of hope.

PRESENTABLE, adj.  Hideously appareled after the manner of the time and place.

In Boorioboola-Gha a man is presentable on occasions of ceremony
if he have his abdomen painted a bright blue and wear a cow’s tail; in
New York he may, if it please him, omit the paint, but after sunset he
must wear two tails made of the wool of a sheep and dyed black.

PRESIDENT, n.  The leading figure in a small group of men of whom– and of whom only–it is positively known that immense numbers of their countrymen did not want any of them for President.

PREVARICATOR, n.  A liar in the caterpillar estate.
PRICE, n.  Value, plus a reasonable sum for the wear and tear of conscience in demanding it.

PRIMATE, n.  The head of a church, especially a State church supported by involuntary contributions.  The Primate of England is the Archbishop of Canterbury, an amiable old gentleman, who occupies Lambeth Palace when living and Westminster Abbey when dead.  He is commonly dead.

PRISON, n.  A place of punishments and rewards.  The poet assures us that–

  “Stone walls do not a prison make,”

but a combination of the stone wall, the political parasite and the moral instructor is no garden of sweets.

PROJECTILE, n.  The final arbiter in international disputes.  Formerly these disputes were settled by physical contact of the disputants, with such simple arguments as the rudimentary logic of the times could supply–the sword, the spear, and so forth.  With the growth of prudence in military affairs the projectile came more and more into favor, and is now held in high esteem by the most courageous.  Its capital defect is that it requires personal attendance at the point of propulsion.

PROOF, n.  Evidence having a shade more of plausibility than of unlikelihood.  The testimony of two credible witnesses as opposed to that of only one.

PROPHECY, n.  The art and practice of selling one’s credibility for future delivery.

PROSPECT, n.  An outlook, usually forbidding.  An expectation, usuallyforbidden.

  Blow, blow, ye spicy breezes–
      O’er Ceylon blow your breath,
  Where every prospect pleases,
      Save only that of death.

Bishop Sheber

PUBLISH, n.  In literary affairs, to become the fundamental element in a cone of critics.

PUSH, n.  One of the two things mainly conducive to success, especially in politics.  The other is Pull.

From the “The Devil’s Dictionary” by Ambrose Bierce, housed in the Gutenberg Library   

23 Responses to “Ambrose Bierce: The Letter P”
  1. Anonymous says:

    For a while there, thought this P was brought to us by Sesame Street and the Children's Television Network. But this is the web, Gutenberg, boy, come to blog us, Pinoy Mayans.DocB

  2. Yep, Pinoys are not immune from Pestilence from abroad. Y'all have opened up the lid of Pandora's container, with the secret code word, Internet, through which Mayan spirits have trekked.

  3. Anonymous says:

    The letter P is sometimes mispronounced by Filipino (Pilipino?) immigrant highschool kids to the US of A. During my class in Shakespeare, a Filipino student recited the ff Romeo and Juliet line in front of class which made him very popular in Roosevelt Highschool afterwards: "Farting is such sweet sorrow…" Happy Hanukkah JoeAm.

  4. ahahahaha, like when I said "fork lifts" and the wife asked "pork lips?"Happy Hanukkah!

  5. Anonymous says:

    JoeSo many P words from Johnny Lin wiktionaryPain: butt- ing average sitePainting- suffering by men on their ting a ling with herpesPardon-Always the highest golf score in each green of Mafia godfatherPassport- privilege exteded to every illegal aliens inthe Philippines after bribing immigration agent in ports of entryPast- voters in the Philippines never think about their politicians after buying their votesPatience- Filipino virtue outside of the Philippines but not within the countryPatriot- Filipino politicians unaware of it's meaningPatriotism- Filipino politicians attitude of loyalty to the party in powerPeace- dreams of every beuty pageant contestantsPerseverance- money exchange in every government bureaucratic office upon leaving the officePessimism- status of every poor Filipino with low peso incomePhilanthropist- other name of politicians during electionPhilosophy- Reasoning of Filipinos in power by salvaging their opponentsPhysician- doctor of physicsPiano- instrument played by felons In police precincts together with their mug shotPiety- cake shape like letter TPigmy- attitude of Filipinos eating free during fiestas and banquetPitiful- members of syndicates roaming the streets of Manila dragging infant children begging for almsPlagiarize- Masterpiecet of SottoPlan- milk delicacy in the PhilippinesPlatitude- Flat facial appearance of a government employee waiting for the bribePlaudits- paid for by politicians to corrupt journalistsPlease- not in the vocabulary of powerful FilipinosPleasure- safe and satisfying sex to anti RH bill senatorsPlunder- High risk game played by government officialsPocket- place to store money by government employeesPolice- common name of thugs in uniformPoliteness- Fernando Poe''s winning light turning to darknessPolitics-Tic many greedy Filipinos are suffering from every 3 yearsPolitician- master of spending other people's moneyPositive- results obtained after giving bribesPoverty- goal of priests on their parishioners to keep them in controlPray- Filipino secret to successPredilection- tactic employed before election by cheatersPre- existence- freeloaders way of livngPreference- criteria used by PNoy for KKKPrejudice- cry of political foes after losing powerPrelate- priests free Starbuck drink of choice while asking favors from PCSOPrerogative- Condom or notPrescription- jail to GMA and her family written by PNoyPresent- Congressmen incentive to attend session

  6. Positivly hilarious. I especially like Platitude and Politeness. You are sneaky funny. I can imagine you and Ambrose trading definitions and laughing mightily as you ride at the side of Pancho Villa across the great Mexican desert.

  7. Ambrose forgot that Pilipino starts with a P. In the early days of the Philippines, Filipinos were called Pilipino. After Americans landed on the beach of Manila (Philippine historians still do not know where exactly Admiral Dewey landed in Manila), they taught Pilipinos that they are “F” not “P” as in P-erfect. All Pilipinos are all “F”. To this day, Pilipinos are now “F”. Not that “F”, yo! F-ilipinos. Filipinos! FILIPINOS! Ok?In the past Pilipino alphabets had no “F”: A Ba Ka Da E Ga Ha La Ma Na … That is Pilipino alphabet. Americans taught them modern alphabet from As to Zs. To this day Pilipinos are cursed with an “F” in their named race. With sheer brilliance, the Filipinos called their national language Pilipino to retain its etymological history. Genius Filipinos began debating what is a Pilipino language? Who speaks it when the country has a gaggle of competing languages? They settled on Tagalog. Tagalog is spoken by very few mostly concentrated in Manila and in Los Angeles. That is what happened when they changed the “P” to “F” instead of “Ph”, the first syllable of Philippines, they are now all “F”.(Bisaya is the dominant language in the Philippines spoken mainly in Visayas, Mindanao and East Coast. Ilocano is spoken in Hawaii)Philippine historians do not know to this day when exactly they transitioned from being Pilipino to Filipino. I so love "P". I'm lovin' it. Life was goot.

  8. Pilipinos were brilliant people. El Feli (1891) and Noli Mi (1887) landed on their shores without the benefit of University of the Philippines Doctorate of History Professors to translate the Spanish novel and what its allegory meant. No internet. No radio. No Barnes&Nobles and Starbucks in every street corner. No libraries. Yet, within 5 years after El Feli, the Pilipinos rose up against the Spanish crusaders in 1896. Yes, Pilipinos were revolutionaries.The Filipinos failed the internet. Somalia and Yemen, Filipinos brand as uncivilized nations, led by Twitter and Facebook took up arms and rose against their masters that fanned the fire of Arab Spring. Filipinos are still liking and sharing corny, grainy, fuzzy smartphone close-up photos of THEIR FACE.

  9. I rather gather the Philippines has long been Manila vs. the rest of the nation, scattered into clans and tribes and islands and cities, each a law unto itself. I'm watching with great amusement the battle between the Governor of Cebu and the President of the nation. It's like when history hits a do-loop and keeps rolling over and over, real time.The governor does self-righteous better than most.

  10. Yeah, you are right! I just checked Governor of Cebu a moment ago. She's not stepping down for 6-months. It is the nature of the Filipinos. Each Filipinos are self-righteous.To this day, Filipinos still believe Marquez landed that "lucky punch". Marquez gulped PEDs.Togunon is discriminated and should have won Miss Universe.So were Jessica Sanchez, Supsup and many others. One thing Filipino never complain is negative assessment of their education system. THEY NEVER COMPLAIN ABOUT EDUCATION BECAUSE FILIPINOS HATE EDUCATION. They care about beauty and boxing and karaoke singing.Whatever Filipinos. Whatever.

  11. J says:

    Excuse me Joe. This is off-topic, but I'd like to share this piece I found on-line: A feature on Secretary del Rosario by the biggest Hong Kong newspaper.

  12. J says:

    Joe, it's Manila versus everyone else because the culture is very tribal. Note, not even feudal but tribal. LOL.

  13. J, I see nothing in my neighborhood that would allow me to argue with that description.

  14. What a great article (great because it echoes my assessment of Del Rosario and Aquino's foreign policy achievements, heh). It goes into a "Must Read" category in the right column, my site enhancement for 2013.

  15. J says:

    Great find (re: Philippine Revolution and Philippine-American War blogs). Very disappointing that the revolutionary government was so divided by their petty differences, and that the McKinley government in Washington betrayed its own "moral code."

  16. Yes, you nailed it. Had the Philippines been united and the US supportive rather than grossly condescending, the Philippines would be somewhere between Singapore and Japan on the economic scale. Of course, WW II would have played out differently, too.But that's what you get when you mix a bunch of tribal leaders with a bunch of European cast-offs.

  17. J says:

    We're playing alternative history here. But I think an independent Philippines would have been annexed by Imperial Japan. Had MacArthur imposed on the Philippines the same land reform scheme he imposed on Japan and Thailand, it might have become better off. But as it were, Mac was BFFs with the big landowners there.

  18. J says:

    Aguinaldo's track of seeking American protectorate would have been the best track. But I wonder, given the blunders the Founding Fathers did while leading the Revolution (and the War against America), would they have built a strong Philippines?

  19. Yes, interesting speculation. I was going through Macapili's articles today myself and found the discussion on the Philippine Independent Church split from the Catholic Church fascinating. On one hand, the U.S. threw the Catholics out of government, but on the other, the U.S. rescued the Catholic Church from oblivion. So we can enjoy some additional speculation as to what the nation would be like under the Independent Church, which was (is) more rooted in Darwin and science.Also, Aguinaldo was very ruthless with the friars.

  20. J says:

    Interesting. The separation of Church and State clause almost didn't make it in the Malolos Congress. The secular delegates had to employ creative tactics to get it passed. The Aglipayan church sequestered Catholic properties, but the American bishops took them back, as you noted. Marcos, by the way, was Aglipayan (before converting to Catholicism). But the Church is now a dying religion. My take is that if the Democrats had been in power, America would have supported Philippine freedom. Jennings and Twain were pro-Philippine advocates. It's sickening how McKinley gravely misinformed the American public. He was telling the American people (who at that time were mostly racist white people) of the need to christianize and educate the savage Filipinos, despite the fact that Filipinos had been Catholic a century before the Pilgrim Fathers arrived in Plymouth and that they had a world-class university twenty-five years before Harvard was established. In the World Exposition of 1910, a Filipino family were caged and put up on the exhibit as "Philippine Islanders" as if they were zoo animals. No wonder, when President Quezon criss-crossed the United States to deliver speeches in different American cities, the crowd would not clap or cheer whenever he would emerge from the train since they thought Quezon, wearing coat tails and hat, was not the President but a mere Hispanic assistant– They thought the Filipino president wore g-strings and a cap with feathers!

  21. That was an embarassing period in American history, for sure, and one that is not taught in the public schools, as far as I can remember. The only light is, as you point out, there were many like Twain who disagreed with policy. Still, racism was not really addressed head-on until the 1960's.I'll repost my write-up on Admiral Dewey that I did a couple of years ago in association with a blog I have in the hopper. I conclude from the chain of events that the US very likely intentionally provoked the Philippine American War. That's when the blinders of ignorance came off my eyes regarding that period. Look for the blog and Dewey article after Christmas.

  22. andrew lim says:

    Merry Xmas Joe and your family!Raissa is asking about the Rizal- Robredo Index on her blog. tnx! Perhaps a condensed user's version of it?

  23. Thanks, Andrew. Merry Christmas to you and those close. It's been a pleasure engaging with you this year. More next year, eh?I'll meander over to Raissa's site and respond there.

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