In 1906, Ambrose Bierce published The Cynic’s Word Book and then reissued the text in 1911 under the more evocative title The Devil’s Dictionary. After having lived through the wanton self-indulgence of America’s Gilded Age, Bierce was delighted to broadcast his cynicism, and he offended many of his readers by having the effrontery to ridicule their cozy illusions.
It is tempting to suggest that our era resembles the one in which Bierce lived and wrote, but to do so would be misleading. Nothing in his experience could have prepared Bierce for the appalling moral evasions of political correctness, the ethical bankruptcy of multiculturalism, or the intellectual vacuities of postmodernism. The veneer of cant that gilds the tawdry hypocrisies of our smile button society has thickened considerably since Bierce’s day, and proclaiming that our cultural Emperor is wearing New Clothes has become a growth industry in America.
In homage to Bierce, I will offer a few of my own Devilishly amended defintions of some currently fashionable words and expressions, in part because anything that furthers the cause of irony in our relentlessly simple-minded and literalist age is worth attempting. Alas, I cannot claim that the following list was very hard to generate, since with so many deserving targets available, the posting almost wrote itself.
Postmodern Christian: A heathen who attends church.
Postmodern Jew: A Buddhist who enjoys eating lox.
Postmodern Buddhist: A Unitarian who wears love beads.
Postmodern Unitarian: A Unitarian.
New Age Seeker: A spiritual pilgrim whose religious practice consists of never going to the Mall unless something is on sale.
Spiritual Pilgrim: Someone whose most deeply-held religious convictions derive from whatever self-help book he has read most recently.
Scented Candles: New Age incense.
New Age Spirituality: Consumerism inflected as self-worship.
Self-Esteem: What whiners have instead of character.
Diet Book: An excuse not to exercise.
Cell Phone: A mobile communications device that enables people who have nothing interesting or important to say to do so more frequently.
Necessary: A word formerly employed to describe something essential; now synonymous with “I want it.”
Liberal: A political Peter Pan.
Conservative: A political Captain Hook.
Education: What one studies in college in order to avoid being educated.
Physical Education: What one studies in college to avoid being in college; most P.E. courses have academically resonant names like “Principles of Coaching.”
Principles of Coaching: A loud whistle.
Optimist: A person without children.
Pessimist: A parent.
Fatalist: A parent with adolescent children.
Teacher: Someone to blame when your child fails at school.
Executive: A business term for someone whose father owns the company.
Administrator: An “executive” in public education who is usually a failed teacher.
Meetings: The favorite workday activity of incompetents.
Wit: Intelligent humor; now virtually extinct.
Pre-nuptial Agreement: Divorce.
Little League: A form of organized baseball in which young people learn good sportsmanship from each other on the field and bad sportsmanship from their parents in the stands.
Soccer Mom: Satan.
Soul: Formerly the immortal part of a human being; now a word used by authors in the titles of their books to help them become bestsellers;
“soul” now conveys a sense of “something vague but very important,” rather as “sex” did a decade ago.
Soul Mate: A person one searches for as a “spiritual justification” to cheat on his spouse.
Popular Culture: Stupidity.
Unpopular Culture: Literacy.
Virtual Reality: What passes for life in Los Angeles.
Computer: The favorite acquisition of irresponsible parents, since they can use it as a baby sitter for their hapless children without feeling guilty by convincing themselves that it’s “educational.”
Spring: Nature’s compensation for technology.
Shopping: The opium of the people.
Saturday Morning Cartoons: The means by which advertisers teach children to want.
Hippie: Someone frozen in time.
Trekkie: Someone frozen in space.
Alternative Music: Noise.
Alternative Medicine: Quackery.
Failure of Nerve: A political compromise.
Failure of Power: Daily life in California.
Fusion Cuisine: Slops.
Irish Stew: Fusion cuisine with a potato.
Breakfast Cereal: Candy.
Organic Breakfast Cereal: Over-priced chaff.
Ideologue: A person who has liberated himself from having to think.
Pagan: Someone who doesn’t go to my church.
Pagan Suckled in a Creed Outworn: English Major.
Role Playing Game: Life for people who lack one.
Monopoly: Formerly, a board game; now, Republican economics.
Candyland: Formerly, a board game; now, Democratic economics.
Coffee: The only legal antidote for morning.
Tea: Coffee for sissies.
Herbal Tea: Woodstock Uber Alles!
Marxism: A discredited social philosophy; it’s historical failure proves what smart people always knew, namely, that Karl was the least talented of the Marx brothers.
Temperance: Originally a synonym for “moderation,” but now corrupted by religious zealots who employ it incorrectly to mean “prohibition.”
Prohibition: The period in American history when organized religion helped to bankroll organized crime; its latest manifestation is called “The War on Drugs” or, on the coca plantations of Columbia, “prosperity.”
Sloth: Formerly one of the Seven Deadly Sins; now, “watching television.”
Convenience: Sloth with a bit of attitude.
Books: Outdated versions of laptop computers.
Information: What people with “non-literate learning styles” confuse with knowledge.
Change: The mantra of pseudo-pundits; fools think that they are being profound when they describe change as “inevitable.”
Progress: Change of which I approve.
Pradigm: Consequent to linguistic abuse, this word has little definable meaning, but for poorly educated people, paradigms are always “shifting.”
Ambrose Bierce disappeared in 1913, and most of his biographers suggest that he wandered off into the Mexican desert to flee from what he perceived to be the intractable absurdities of American life. Perhaps I cannot endorse Bierce’s escapism, for I certainly love my country enough to remain at home and criticize its collective follies, but I also acknowledge that, like many thoughtful Americans, there are occasions during a typical day when I find it hard not to envy the moral resolve that doubtless informed his decision.
This posting first appeared as an editorial in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on February 18, 2001. I stand by everything that I have written, though I am – at least for now – going to resist the temptation to expand this definitional list, even though it would be sadly easy to do so.