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Literature and Ideas

guillotine

n.

The Devil's Dictionary

Ambrose Bierce

A machine which makes a Frenchman shrug his shoulders with good reason.

In his great work on Divergent Lines of Racial Evolution, the learned Professor Brayfugle argues from the prevalence of this gesture — the shrug — among Frenchmen, that they are descended from turtles and it is simply a survival of the habit of retracting the head inside the shell. It is with reluctance that I differ with so eminent an authority, but in my judgment (as more elaborately set forth and enforced in my work entitled Hereditary Emotions — lib. II, c. XI) the shrug is a poor foundation upon which to build so important a theory, for previously to the Revolution the gesture was unknown. I have not a doubt that it is directly referable to the terror inspired by the guillotine during the period of that instrument’s activity.