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A Dozen Lessons on Finance and Business from Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Bierce started his career as a printer’s devil (apprentice) at an Indiana, paper after he completed about a year in high school. In 1861 he enlisted in the 9th Indiana Volunteers and fought in a number of American Civil War battles, including Shiloh and Chickamauga. He was seriously wounded in the Battle of Kennessaw Mountain in 1864 and served until January 1865.  After the war he worked as an editor, journalist, and short story writer mostly in San Francisco. What would become the book “The Devil’s Dictionary was begun in a weekly paper in 1881, and was continued in a desultory way at long intervals until 1906.  In that year a large part of it was published in covers with the title The Cynic’s Word Book, a name which the author had not the power to reject or happiness to approve.”

Janson Zweig has written a wonderful book entitled The Devil’s Financial Dictionary in the style of Bierce that is both entertaining and educational. My approach in this blog post, as is customary, is to supply something in support of the original text, which in this case a joke rather than the usual commentary.

  1. “OWE, v. To have (and to hold) a debt. The word formerly signified not indebtedness, but possession it meant ‘own,’ and in the minds of debtors there is still a good deal of confusion between assets and liabilities.” 

A frog goes into the bank and asks the teller for a business loan. The teller tells the frog to see Mr. Paddywack, the business loan officer. Mr. Paddywack looks at the frog and says, “What do you have for collateral? The frog pulls out of his pocket a solid silver elephant. Mr. Paddywack looks at the elephant and says, “I don’t know. I’m going to have to ask Mr. Larson, the bank manager to approve this business loan.” He goes into Mr. Larson’s office and comes back. Two minutes later, Mr. Larson comes out with the elephant and says, “It’s a knick-knack Paddywack, give the frog a loan!”

  1. “COMMERCE, n. A kind of transaction in which A plunders from B the goods of C, and for compensation B picks the pocket of D of money belonging to E.” 

A man had just been hired as the new CEO of a large corporation. The CEO who was stepping down met with him privately and presented him with three numbered envelopes. “Open these if you run up against a problem you don’t think you can solve,” he said. Well, things went along pretty smoothly at first, but six months later, sales took a downward turn and he was really catching a lot of heat. About at his wits end, he remembered the envelopes. He went to his drawer and took out the first envelope. The message read, “Blame your predecessor.” The new CEO called a press conference and tactfully laid the blame at the feet of the previous CEO. Satisfied with his comments, the press — and Wall Street — responded positively, sales began to pick up and the problem was soon behind him. About a year later, the company was again experiencing a dip in sales, combined with serious product problems. Having learnt from his previous experience, the CEO opened the second envelope. The message read, “Reorganize.” This he did, and the company rebounded. After several consecutive profitable quarters, the company once again fell on difficult times. The CEO went to his office, closed the door and opened the third envelope. The message said, “Prepare three envelopes.”

  1. “FINANCE, n. The art or science of managing revenues and resources for the best advantage of the manager. The pronunciation of this word with the i long and the accent on the first syllable is one of America’s most precious discoveries and possessions.”

How many stockbrokers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Two. One to hire a lightbulb installer and another to charge you a fee of 1% of your assets each year and a 5% sales load.

  1. “MAMMON, n.: The god of the world’s leading religion.” (can be defined as money, material wealth, or any entity that promises wealth.”

Two friends met in the street. One looked sad and almost on the verge of tears. The other man said, “Hey my friend, how come you look like the whole world has caved in?”  The sad fellow said, “Let me tell you. Three weeks ago, an uncle died and left me $50,000.” “That’s not bad at all…!” “Hold on, I’m just getting started. Two weeks ago, a cousin I never knew died and left me $95,000.” “Well, that’s great! I’d like that.” “Last week, my grandfather passed away. I inherited almost $1 million.” “So why are so glum?” “This week – nothing!”

  1. “PROPERTY, n. Any material thing, having no particular value, that may be held by A against the cupidity of B. Whatever gratifies the passion for possession in one and disappoints it in all others.” 

A man opened the door of his BMW, when suddenly a car came along and hit the door, ripping it off completely. When the police arrived at the scene, the lawyer was complaining bitterly about the damage to his precious BMW. “Officer, look what they’ve done to my Beeeemer!!!”, he whined. “You are so materialistic. You make me sick!!!” said  the officer, “You’re so worried about your stupid BMW, that you didn’t even notice that your left arm was ripped off!” “Oh my gaaad….”, replied the man, finally noticing the bloody left shoulder where his arm once was, “Where’s my Rolex? ”

  1. “MONEY, n. A blessing that is of no advantage to us excepting when we part with it. An evidence of culture and a passport to polite society. Supportable property.” 

A thief stuck a pistol in a man’s ribs and said, “Give me your money.” The man replied, “You cannot do this — I’m a United States congressman!”  The thief said, “In that case, give me my money!”

  1. “CLAIRVOYANT, n.: A person who has the power of seeing that which is invisible to her patron – namely, that he is a blockhead.”

While studying the occult, a teacher asked one of the boys in her class, “Can people predict the future with cards?” His response was, “My mother can.” The teacher replied, “Really?” The young boy was quick to explain, “Yes, she takes one look at my report card and tells me what will happen when my father gets home.”

  1. “BRAIN, n. An apparatus with which we think that we think.” 

An alien walked into a shop and told the owner that he came from Mars and wanted to buy a brain for research. ”How much is this one?” he asked. ”That one is a monkey brain, and it’s $20,” the owner explained. ”How much is that one?” the alien asked. “That one is an engineer’s brain, and it’s $100,” the owner replied. ”And how much is that one?” the alien asked. ”That one is a politician’s and it is $500” the owner explained. ”Why is the politician’s brain so expensive?” the alien asked. The owner answered, ”Well, it’s hardly been used!”

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

A girl has brought her fiancé home for dinner. After dinner, the fiancé and the girl’s father go into the study for a man to man talk. “So, what are you doing right now?” asks the father. “I am a theology scholar,” replies the fiancé. “Do you have any plans of employment?” “I will study and God will provide.” “What about the children?” asks the man. “God will provide.” “And your house and car?” “Again, God will provide,” says the fiancé. After the talk, the girl’s mother asks the father, “So what did you two talk about?” The man replies, “He has no plans of employment, but on the other hand, he thinks I’m God.”

  1. “RESPONSIBILITY, n. A detachable burden easily shifted to the shoulders of God, Fate, Fortune, Luck or one’s neighbor. In the days of astrology it was customary to unload it upon a star.”

Joe was having a tough time finding a job what with the current economic problems. He couldn’t even get an interview. Finally, he secured an interview and needless to say, he was trying his best to impress. The interviewer said, “In this job Joe, we need someone who is responsible.” “I’m the one you want,” Joe replied. “At my last job every time anything went wrong, they said I was responsible.”

11.“CONSULT, v.i. To seek another’s disapproval of a course already decided on.”

A shepherd was herding his flock in a remote pasture when suddenly a brand-new BMW advanced out of the dust cloud towards him. The driver, a young man in a Brioni suit, Gucci shoes, Ray Ban sunglasses and a silk tie, leaned out the window and asked the shepherd… “If I tell you exactly how many sheep you have in your flock, will you give me one?” The shepherd looked at the man, obviously a yuppie, then looked at his peacefully grazing flock and calmly answered “sure”. The man parked his car, whipped out his laptop and connected it to a mobile phone, then he surfed to a NASA page on the internet where he called up a GPS satellite navigation system, scanned the area, and then opened up a database and an Excel spreadsheet with complex formulas. He sent an email and, after a few minutes, received a response. Finally, he prints out a 130-page report, then turns to the shepherd and says, “You have exactly 1586 sheep. “That is correct; take one of the sheep.” said the shepherd. He watches the young man select one of the animals and bundle it into his car. Then the shepherd says: “If I can tell you exactly what your business is, will you give me back my animal?”, “OK, why not.” answered the man.” Clearly, you are a consultant.” said the shepherd. “That’s correct.” Says the man, “but how did you guess that?” “No guessing required.” Answers the shepherd. “You turned up here although nobody called you. You want to get paid for an answer I already knew, to a question I never asked, and you don’t know crap about my business. Now give me back my dog.”

  1. “BORE, n. A person who talks when you wish him to listen.”

“I’m bored’ is a useless thing to say. I mean, you live in a great, big, vast world that you’ve seen none percent of. Even the inside of your own mind is endless; it goes on forever, inwardly, do you understand? The fact that you’re alive is amazing, so you don’t get to say ‘I’m bored.”  Louis C.K.


The Devil’s Dictionary http://xroads.virginia.edu/~Hyper/Bierce/bierce.html#L

The Devil’s Financial Dictionary By Jason Zweig  https://www.amazon.com/Devils-Financial-Dictionary-Jason-Zweig/dp/1610396995

Tech version: http://www.theverge.com/a/new-devils-dictionary

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