Thursday, September 4, 2014

Ambrose Bierce's blacklist

 Ambrose Bierce’s blacklist

A friend and owner of a local independent bookstore discovered a copy of a slim 1909 book, Ambrose Bierce’s Write it Right – A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults. She decided it might be the sort of thing that would interest me. She was right.

Written over a century ago by one of the era’s brilliant literary and social critics, Write it Right beautifully exemplifies that over time, language changes, and that people -- no matter how bright, daring, and wonderful they might be -- don’t like change.

The book is set up like a dictionary, each entry either focusing on one word or on words that Mr. Bierce believed users were confusing. Bierce’s purpose was to “teach precision in writing.” Below you’ll find a few selected entries highlighting not only Bierce’s keen wit and education, but his delightfully high opinion of himself.

Banquet. A good enough word in its place, but its place is the dictionary. Say, dinner.

Casket for coffin. A needless euphemism affected by undertakers.

Dirt for Earth, Soil, or Gravel. A most disagreeable Americanism, discredited by general (and Presidential) use. “Make the dirt fly.” Dirt means filth.

Firstly. If this word could mean anything it would mean firstlike, whatever that might mean. The ordinal numbers should have no adverbial form: “firstly,” “secondly,” and the rest are words without meaning.

Gent for Gentleman. Vulgar exceedingly.

Gubernatorial. Eschew it; it is not English, is needless and bombastic. Leave it to those who call a political office a “chair.” “Gubernatorial chair” is good enough for them. So is hanging.

Meet for Meeting. This belongs to the language of sport, which persons of sense do not write—nor read.

Pants for Trousers. Abbreviated from pantaloons, which are no longer worn. Vulgar exceedingly.

Poetess. A foolish word, like “authoress.”

Tasty for Tasteful. Vulgar.

Ways for Way. “A squirrel ran a little ways along the road.” “The ship looked a long ways off.” This surprising word calls loudly for depluralization.

Readers, I hope you have something to say about all this. If so, please say it in the comments section.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: The Ambrose Bierce Project, & Write it Right – A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults, The Neale Publishing Company, 1909.


  1. Wonderful! How lucky you were to find this, Charlie. Very dry and funny. What would Bierce say about today's use of anyways for anyway? That just makes my head ache. :) Love your blog. Hugs, P.

  2. What a fantastic find! My dad used to quote Ambrose Bierce when he wanted to intimidate his students (and children.) I know Bierce was especially unfond of Oscar Wilde, and gave him a terrible review in the Alta Californian newspaper. In my book Ghostwriters in the Sky, I invent a mythical letter from Oscar Wilde, asking Calamity Jane to "put a bullet between the eyes of Mr. Ambrose Bierce." And I invented a valuable book, rather like the one now in your possession. What a treasure!

  3. Hey Paul & Anne - Bierce was decidedly a character. I suppose I now need to go find his review(s) of Wilde (another character). And like Dave Congalton's Authors Anonymous, Ghostwriters in the Sky is a story everyone can enjoy (though writers might break out in guffaws more regularly than non-writers).

  4. What a treasure! What would he think of our adulterated language now? I imagine the word vulgar would run rampant through his diatribe! Do we have Carroll to thank? She's great at finding perfect books for the perfect people.

  5. Howdy Christine - we do have Carroll to thank, & I imagine Mr. Bierce would have to find some synonyms for vulgar or it owuld be one of the only words he'd speak.

  6. Thank you for sharing these excerpts, Charlie. Delightful! I especially like Bierce's commentary at the end of the "gubernatorial" entry.

  7. Hey Vickie - yes, it seems Mr. Bierce & Dorothy Parker had some similarities.