This word makes me think of three others: Alsace, Ames, and Ambrose.

It also makes me think of embrace and ambulance and a few others, it’s true. But I’d really like to roll the dice on those three proper nouns.

I should say, first of all, that this word comes from French ambes as, from Latin ambas as, meaning “both ones” or “both aces”. In English, the more common term for this is snake eyes. It’s referring to dice, you see: those two separate dots that stare at you like a colon or a snake’s eyes, expecting what is to follow – your loss. In Texas Hold ‘Em, two aces is good – pocket aces are usually good for a pre-flop all-in. But in craps, two ones is doubleplusungood. So ambsace can, aside from “snake eyes”, mean “bad luck”. It can also mean “the smallest amount”, no more than a jot or a tittle – you may have heard “within an ace of” something; in craps terms, that’s “within ambsace”.

I should also say that this word has two pronunciations. You likely read it as “ams ace”, which is one possible; the other is “ames ace” (i.e., “aims ace”). This is why it reminds me of both Ames and Ambrose.

First to Alsace, though: that region that has historically been bounced back and forth between France and Germany like a tennis ball. And yet, for all that, it is not just politically important, it also produces much of France’s beer and some mighty fine Rieslings and Gewürztraminers. Nuts to the bad-luck rolls of history: the glass is neither half-full nor half-empty – when it’s empty, refill it and have another!

Now, Ames: that’s the name of a town in Iowa, but it’s named after a U.S. Congressman, Oakes Ames. Why name a town after him? For the same reason they named a monument in Wyoming after him: he was perhaps the single biggest factor in getting the Union Pacific portion of the transcontinental railroad in the U.S. built. Lincoln asked him to take charge of it, and he did: he awarded a bunch of contracts to firms his family owned, and then he sold shares in them at discount prices to other congressmen, and they voted for legislation that allowed it to go ahead. And it got built. And a monument was erected to him in 1882 at the highest point of the railroad: a stone pyramid, not really a monolith but nonetheless an ace for Ames.

But his dodgy dealings in the sale of shares led to his censure and expulsion from congress, and he died soon after. And in the decades after 1882, the railroad realigned, stranding the monument and killing the nearby town of Sherman. Ames’s ace became ambsace.

As to Ambrose, I mean specifically Ambrose Bierce, that crusty American writer best known for The Cynic’s Word Book, republished under the better-known title The Devil’s Dictionary. It is a satirical, cynical work, with tart little definitions such as “Selfish, adj., Devoid of consideration for the selfishness of others” and “Loquacity, n., A disorder which renders the sufferer unable to curb his tongue when you wish to talk.” For “Railroad” he offered this definition: “The chief of many mechanical devices enabling us to get away from where we are to where we are no better off.”

Not all of Bierce’s definitions were pithy; I would like to quote at length his definition of “Lexicographer”:

A pestilent fellow who, under the pretense of recording some particular stage in the development of a language, does what he can to arrest its growth, stiffen its flexibility and mechanize its methods. For your lexicographer, having written his dictionary, comes to be considered “as one having authority,” whereas his function is only to make a record, not to give a law. The natural servility of the human understanding having invested him with judicial power, surrenders its right of reason and submits itself to a chronicle as if it were a statue. Let the dictionary (for example) mark a good word as “obsolete” or “obsolescent” and few men thereafter venture to use it, whatever their need of it and however desirable its restoration to favor – whereby the process of improverishment is accelerated and speech decays. On the contrary, recognizing the truth that language must grow by innovation if it grow at all, makes new words and uses the old in an unfamiliar sense, has no following and is tartly reminded that “it isn’t in the dictionary” – although down to the time of the first lexicographer (Heaven forgive him!) no author ever had used a word that was in the dictionary. In the golden prime and high noon of English speech; when from the lips of the great Elizabethans fell words that made their own meaning and carried it in their very sound; when a Shakespeare and a Bacon were possible, and the language now rapidly perishing at one end and slowly renewed at the other was in vigorous growth and hardy preservation – sweeter than honey and stronger than a lion – the lexicographer was a person unknown, the dictionary a creation which his Creator had not created him to create.

In other words, old words crap out, while new ones are told “No dice.” But good descriptive lexicographers are not so cruel; it is, rather, certain users of their field guides who load the dice.

As to Ambrose Bierce: at the age of 71, he  departed for Mexico and simply vanished, his ultimate end unknown. His words survive, of course, every titillating jot of them.

Thanks to Elaine Phillips for suggesting ambsace.

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