The Devil’s Dictionary: “Insurance”

In our continuing quest to revisit a classic, or even a curiosity from the past and see how relevant it is, we continue with The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce. Originally published in newspaper installments from 1881 until 1906. You might be surprised how current many of the entries are.

A young Ambrose Bierce

For example, here is a definition for the word Insurance. The Old definitions are Bierce’s. The New definition is mine. From time to time, just as it was originally published, we will come back to The Devil’s Dictionary, for a look at it then and how it applies today. Click on Devil’s Dictionary in the tags below to bring up the other entries.

Insurance, n. An ingenious modern game of chance in which the player is permitted to enjoy the comfortable conviction that he is beating the man who keeps the table.


INSURANCE AGENT: My dear sir, that is a fine house – pray let me insure it.

HOUSE OWNER: With pleasure. Please make the annual premium so low that by the time when, according to the tables of your actuary, it will probably be destroyed by fire I will have paid you considerably less than the face of the policy.

INSURANCE AGENT: O dear, no – we could not afford to do that. We must fix the premium so that you will have paid more.

HOUSE OWNER: How, then, can _I_ afford _that_?

INSURANCE AGENT: Why, your house may burn down at any time. There was Smith’s house, for example, which —

HOUSE OWNER: Spare me – there were Brown’s house, on the contrary, and Jones’s house, and Robinson’s house, which—


HOUSE OWNER: Let us understand each other. You want me to pay you money on the supposition that something will occur previously to the time set by yourself for its occurrence. In other words, you expect me to bet that my house will not last so long as you say that it will probably last.

INSURANCE AGENT: But if your house burns without insurance it will be a total loss.

HOUSE OWNER: Beg your pardon – by your own actuary’s tables I shall probably have saved, when it burns, all the premiums I would otherwise have paid to you – amounting to more than the face of the policy they would have bought. But suppose it to burn, uninsured, before the time upon which your figures are based. If I could not afford that, how could you if it were insured?

INSURANCE AGENT: O, we should make ourselves whole from our loss.

HOUSE OWNER: And virtually, then, don’t I help to pay their losses? Are not their houses as likely as mine to burn before they have paid you as much as you must pay them? The case stands this way: you expect to take more money from your clients than you pay to them, do you not?

INSURANCE AGENT: Certainly; if we did not—

HOUSE OWNER: I would not trust you with my money. Very well then. If it is _certain_, with reference to the whole body of your clients, that they lose money on you it is _probable_, with reference to any one of them, that _he_ will. It is these individual probabilities that make the aggregate certainty.

INSURANCE AGENT: I will not deny it – but look at the figures in this pamph—

HOUSE OWNER: Heaven forbid!

INSURANCE AGENT: You spoke of saving the premiums which you would otherwise pay to me. Will you not be more likely to squander them? We offer you an incentive to thrift.

HOUSE OWNER: The willingness of A to take care of B’s money is not peculiar to insurance, but as a charitable institution you command esteem. Deign to accept its expression from a Deserving Object.


Insurance, n. A broad term covering several versions of an ingenious and something disingenuous modern game of chance in which the player is permitted to enjoy the comfortable conviction person that he is getting what he paid his premiums for. This is especially true in health insurance and policies such as long term disability.

ACCOUNT MANAGER (now they call them account managers): Sir, I only received the files from the short term disability people. It will take us a week to input them into our system.

POLICY OWNER (though he or she actually owns nothing): I will call you back in a week, then.


A week later.

ACCOUNT MANAGER: Yes, the files are input, but we need something from your employer stating that you are eligible for long term disability. I have sent them an e-mail, but have heard nothing back. I can’t send your files on to the medical staff for review until I get that information.

POLICY OWNER: How long will the medical review take?

ACCOUNT MANAGER: At least a week.

POLICY OWNER: Then I will have long term disability?

ACCOUNT MANAGER: If they have enough information and if they agree, you will then qualify.


POLICY OWNER: (Dials his employer’s benefits number.) After pressing several buttons to get through the gauntlet of the automated menu, finally, after one or two transfers, reaches the “right” person and explains the situation.

LTD BENEFITS PERSON: Yes, I received the e-mail, but it was only on Friday and today is Tuesday. Besides, I need a current job description before I can send a response. (Pauses as if something is wrong, or she may have discovered something.) I will need to check into this.


On Friday of the same week.

ACCOUNT MANAGER: I received a response, but they did not include information when the policy was effective. Even if it was years ago that it first became active, we need to know that date.

POLICY OWNER: The date of the policy?


POLICY OWNER: I took out the policy when it was first offered to me over seven years ago. So, it’s over seven years.



ACCOUNT MANAGER: Yes, but they need to send me the date.

POLICY OWNER: Since your company is carrying the policy, don’t you have that date?

ACCOUNT MANAGER: Your employer needs to send me the date.

POLICY OWNER: Once you get the date, you can submit the files to the medical people?

ACCOUNT MANAGER: Yes, but once they take a look at, if they approve, it then goes to my supervisor, who send it up to the directors’ level.


ACCOUNT MANAGER: Because this was a previously closed case, and to fully reopen it, the directors will have to approve.

POLICY OWNER: How long will that take?

ACCOUNT MANAGER: That can take up to two months.

POLICY HOLDER: Two months?


The sound of yes begins to sound very much like “No.” It is only used in response to delays and additional obstacles.

POLICY OWNER: (Dials his employer. Gets shoved into a voice mail que, where he leaves his name, who he wants to speak with, and what it is about. This is roughly at 10 AM. At 3 PM he calls back and after punching his way through several automated menus, he reaches the same voice mail que, but this time he is told it is full and the system hangs up on him.)


Filed under 2017, Ambrose Bierce, Devil's Dictionary

2 responses to “The Devil’s Dictionary: “Insurance”

  1. I “liked” this because it’s well written and sadly true, not because there’s anything to like about this situation.

    “I shall throw money into a pit in perpetuity, because if the worst should happen and I DIDN’T have insurance, I would be ruined.”

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