The Devil's Financial Dictionary

Here are a few entries that give a taste of The Devil’s Financial Dictionary, my glossary of financial terms published by PublicAffairs in November 2015. Inspired by Ambrose Bierce’s masterpiece The Devil’s Dictionary, which the great American satirist published sporadically between 1881 and 1911, the book is meant to make you laugh and learn at the same time.  (View free versions of Bierce’s text here or here.) Like Bierce’s brilliantly cynical definitions, the explanations presented here should not — quite — be taken as literally true.


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AMPHIVENA, n. Also AMPHISBAENA.  A mythical creature described in ancient and medieval bestiaries, the amphivena has one head at the end of a long neck and another at the end of a long tail — “as though,” in the words of the Roman naturalist Pliny, “one mouth were too little for the discharge of all its venom.” It is often described as being able to move both forward and backward, or to rock back and forth on its round stomach. Fortunately, the amphivena most often strikes out at itself. The creature is often portrayed with one head gnawing away at the other, or with neck and tail entangled in dubious battle with each other.

In the modern world the amphivena is commonly referred to as either “an economist” or “a market forecaster.”

An amphivena, at war with itself. From the bestiary in a religious text in one of the Harley manuscripts, ca. 1236-1250, in the British Library.

An amphivena, at war with itself. From the bestiary in a religious text in one of the Harley manuscripts, ca. 1236-1250, in the British Library.

 

ANNUAL MEETING, n.  A gathering held once a year, often at a hotel serving bad food and stale coffee somewhere near an airport, at which the company’s management gilds its results and pretends to listen to the wishes and grievances of the people who own the company.

 

AUDITOR, n.  An accountant who all too often may approve a company’s financial statements exactly as the company’s management wishes them to be presented.

“It’s our job as auditors to do whatever we can ensure that a company’s financial statements conform with GAAP, but not to function as policemen or fraud detectors,” said Seymour Billings, a partner in the Chicago office of the accounting firm of Tinker Hyde Alter & Berry.

The word auditor, in Latin, means “one who hears.” In English, evidently, it means one who also obeys.

 

 


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