The Devil’s Dictionary Part 1: A Four Letter Word

Over the course of 30 years, American Civil War Soldier and writer Ambrose Bierce created a collection of satirical definitions for common words.  In 1906 these were published first as “The Cynics Word Book,” and later as “The Devil’s Dictionary.” His work was humorous and biting and reflected the truth that meaning is often dictated by circumstance, sender, and receiver.  Below, you will find a word “as it is at UUCP.” As we work toward a better understanding and celebration of one another, may we also take a moment to examine the ways we have created meaning in language.


First of the Four Letter Words:


Rank- 2nd highest of the verboten
Further Shunned: Prayer
Near Synonyms: Kneel, Say Grace,
Less Offensive: Meditate, Hold Space, Take a Moment, Sit Together in Silence
Best Course of Action if Caught Using Said Cuss:
  1. Claim to have meant “Prey” as in hunt and eat the carcasses of . . .  (whatever politician is most popular to denigrate among mid-road liberal voters)
  1. Use this phrase repeated verbatim: “I was reciting a poorly written translation of a Rumi piece that I plan to present to the governing board as an example of misinterpretation at the hands of the under-educated



I pray.  Sometimes I even “capital P Pray,” down on my knees, hands folded, lost in tears, pray.  And it feels so good.  OK, moment of confession over.  Now that I’ve admitted to doing the P word, I can give the word some UUCP meaning.


To pray is the act of applying words to recognize the world, put names to the things in our lives that swirl around us, taking the brave step of saying out loud or in personal silence the things that are scary, joyful, confusing, or amazing.  Prayer is a moment of connection to the world around us.  As such, it falls into the general category of “Spiritual Practice.”  Specifically, prayers are those spiritual moments we wish to articulate and communicate.  We put them to words, sometimes the words to songs. We whisper them to ourselves, we speak them aloud with a group.


While personal histories and faith trauma may lead us as individuals to shy away from the word itself, as a community, we frequently take part in prayer.  Our Covenant, recited together is a vision for how we wish to be together. We have chalice lightings and responsive readings to remind us of our spirit in ritual.  We sing to gather, celebrate, or being a meal.  Many of us have found our own practices of payer, table graces, goodnight words, well wishes when traveling, rosaries of all sorts, and incantations from our childhoods.  All of these can be prayer and all of them can be honored for the moment of connection and spirit they embody.


Resources For Thinking About this Dirty Word and Where to Find Prayers

  • Family Prayers– what ways does your household communicate moments of spiritual intention?  Do you wish your kiddo “Have a great day!” every morning? Do you you say grace at the dinner table?  In hard times, do you find yourself talking to your ancestors?
  • Earth Prayers from Around the World: 365 Prayers, Poems, and Invocations for Honoring the Earth- By Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amidon
  •  Braver/Wiser gives you weekly message of courage and compassion for life as it is. Every Wednesday we deliver an original written reflection by a contemporary religious leader, and brief prayer, grounded in Unitarian Universalism.
  • To Wake, To Rise : Meditations on Justice and Resilience Editor: William G. Sinkford
  • A Child’s Book of Blessings and Prayers By: Eliza Blanchard
  • UUA Published Brochures (available in the UUCP Lobby): UU Views of Prayer, Family Prayers,