I bought Gustave Flaubert’s hilarious little book about six years ago, out of boredom. I was extremely tired and reading it proved to be a delightful experience; it thus became one of my most prized possession. But, being a generous person, I let a friend borrow it when she needed a delightful read. And I never saw neither the book nor my friend again. Until I stumbled on it in a library lately and immediately bought it. And the one who said laughter was the best cure for anything certainly knew what he was talking about, because Flaubert’s satirical definitions of platitudes soothed my recent heartbreak. I assume I don’t need to tell you who Gustave Flaubert is: his name makes his Frenchness pretty obvious and Madam Bovary is a must-read, so I guess I can skip the biography. I’ll just say that the Dictionary of Received Ideas was written in the 1870’s but that it sometimes oddly resonates with our time. Actually, I will also skip the review for Flaubert defines Literature (my main occupation) as the “occupation of idlers”. Not only am I too lazy to write a review for this amazing book, I also believe the best way to convince you to read it is to tease you with a bunch of definitions. There you go.
ACADEMY, FRENCH (ACADEMIE FRANCAISE) Run it down but try to belong to it if possible.
ACTRESSES The ruin of young men of good family. Are terribly lascivious, engage in orgies, run through fortunes, and end up in the workhouse. ‘I beg to differ: some make excellent mothers!’
AMERICA Fine example of injustice: Columbus discovered it and it is named after Amerigo Vespucci. If it weren’t for the discovery of America, we shouldn’t have syphilis and Phylloxera. Praise it all the same, especially if you’ve never been there. Expatiate on selfgovernment.
ANGER Stirs the blood: it is healthy to be angry now and then.
ARISTOCRACY Despise and envy it.
ARTISTS All charlatans. Praise their disinterestedness (old-fashioned). Express surprise that they dress like everyone else (old-fashioned). They earn huge sums, but squander them. Often asked to dine out. A woman artist must be a whore. What artists do can’t be called work.
BALDNESS Always ‘premature’. Caused by youthful excesses, or the hatching of great thoughts.
BEETHOVEN Don’t pronounce Beatoven. Be sure to swoon when one of his works is being played.
BILL Always too high.
BOOK Always too long, whatever the subject.
BRUNETTES Hotter than blondes. (See BLONDES.)
BUDGET Never balanced.
CATHOLICISM Has had a very good influence on art.
CELEBRITIES Find out the smallest details of their private lives, so that you can run them down.
CHAMPAGNE The sign of a grand dinner. Pretend to despise it, saying: ‘It isn’t really a wine.’ Arouses the enthusiasm of the lower orders. Russia drinks more of it than France. The medium through which French ideas have been spread throughout Europe. During the Regency people did nothing but drink champagne. But one doesn’t drink champagne: one ‘sips’ it.
COITUS, COPULATION Words to avoid. Say: ‘Intimacy occurred…’
CONCERT Respectable way of killing time.
CORSET Prevents childbearing.
DARWIN The fellow who says we’re descended from monkeys.
DEBAUCHERY Cause of all the diseases from which bachelors suffer.
DIPLOMA Emblem of knowledge. Proves nothing.
ENGLISHWOMEN Express surprise that they can have pretty children.
ERECTION Said only of monuments.
FAME Vanity of vanities.
GENTLEMEN There aren’t any left.
GODFATHER Always the godchild’s real father.
HERMAPHRODITES Arouse unwholesome curiosity. Try to see one.
LATE NIGHTS Are respectable in the country.
LADIES Always come first. ‘God bless ‘em!’ Be careful how you use the term.
LAURELS Keep a man from sleeping.
LAW (THE) Nobody knows what it is.
LEARNING Despise it as the sign of a narrow mind.
MOON Inspires melancholy. May be inhabited.
ORGASM Obscene term.
PIANO Indispensable in a drawing-room.
POET Flattering synonym for fool, dreamer.
PROSE Easier to write than verse.
RELATIVES Always a nuisance. Keep the poor ones out of sight.
SELFISHNESS Complain of other people’s, and overlook your own.
SYPHILIS Everybody is more or less infected with it.
TIGHTS Sexually exciting.
WAR Thunder against it.
WEATHER Eternal topic of conversation. Universal cause of illness. [MB2.5] Always complain about it.
YAWNING Say: ‘Excuse me, it isn’t that I’m bored— it’s my stomach.’
Now, if you don’t feel like you need to read it, I just don’t know what to do with you!