some selections from flaubert's dictionary of received ideas

gustave flaubert (1821-1880) was an acclaimed french novelist, best known for writing madame bovary. less well-known is some of the work he did on a topic that preoccupied him for much of his life: human stupidity, especially of the bourgeois type. his interest led him to start compiling all the insipid clichés and dumb parroted opinions he would hear in high society parties and the like into a collection that eventually became a satirical work called the "dictionary of received ideas", intended to be the ultimate reference for your typical unthinking bourgeois idiot who knows little but needs something to contribute to conversations. all you have to do is look up any topic in the dictionary, and there you can find the stock response to give, no critical thinking requiredi suppose you could also view the dictionary as part of flaubert's prolonged literary war against clichés, which he painstakingly avoided in his novels. for example, quite a few entries in the dictionary take the form "X: Always 'Y' or 'Z'", pointing out how certain words always seem to be used together to the point where they've just become part of a package, like a mini-expression or, as flaubert fears, a cliché. .

this was an interesting concept to me because i feel like i've run into this sort of thing myself. in my younger and more vulnerable days, i used to browse reddit quite a bit. i know, i know, but to be fair it really did used to be somewhat better back in the day. what eventually motivated me to quit was when i realized that i could easily guess what the top 5 comments of a thread would be even before opening it up. this is because over time, the site had devolved into endless repetition of the same references, the same stupid jokes/puns, the same tired takes, and so on. posters had figured out what sorts of things got the most updoots, and would relentlessly milk them. i guess that's pretty bad, but what might be even worse is that the "hivemind" was so content to continue updooting the same stuff over and over again. after browsing long enough, i had learned the entire canon of stock responses, and probably could have put together my own satirical "dictionary of redditarded ideas"there are even some entries from the dictionary of received ideas that are somehow valid for reddit as well, like the "Astronomy" one. redditors always held astronomy in high regard ("An admirable science"), and when astronomy came up i also recall seeing many astrology dunks ("In speaking of it, poke fun at astrology").. there was nothing new or interesting to be found, so i quit. i imagine flaubert must've had a similar moment going to some parisian party, hopping into a conversation about something or the other, and realizing that he could predict everything that people were going to say.

anyways, down below on this page i've collected some of my favorite entries from flaubert's dictionary of received ideas. it's fascinating to me how many are still relevant and/or funny despite being well over a hundred years old. i suppose it's just evidence that while technology may advance and aesthetics trends come and go, human nature will never change. even if the topics they enthuse about are different, many of the types of guy and the attitudes that flaubert pokes fun at still exist to this day. now they just talk about crypto or elon musk or some bs all the time instead of railways and napoleon, like in flaubert's entry for railways: "If Napoleon had had them, he would have been invincible. Enthuse about them, saying: "I, my dear sir, who am speaking to you now, was at X this morning: I had taken the train to X, I transacted my business there, and by X o'clock I was back here." i guess to be fair railways actually are useful and still heavily used to this day, and napoleon did kind of come pretty close to conquering europe, so there's that.


Extra violent poison: one glass and you're a dead man. Newspapermen drink it while writing their copy. Has killed more soldiers than the Bedouins.
Always "regrettable or "unfortunate" (as if a mishap could ever be a cause for rejoicing).
Add "fleet-footed": people will think you've read Homer.
Always "white", "perfidious", or "positivist". Napoleon only just failed to conquer it. Praise it: "freedom-loving England."
Always "insane" unless it is "noble".
"If only animals could speak! There are some which are more intelligent than men."
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.
An admirable science. Useful only to sailors. In speaking of it, poke fun at astrology.


Always "premature". Caused by youthful excesses, or the hatching of great thoughts.
Thanks to them, man will one day reach the moon. But it will be a long time before they can be steered.
Always too high.
Wish you were one, saying with a sigh: "Oh, for a pair of wings!" This shows a poetic soul.
If we knew how the human body is made, we wouldn't dare to move a muscle.
Nobody knows what filth goes into it.


Has two humps and the dromedary only one; or else the camel has one and the dromedary two - nobody can ever remember which.
Has had a very good influence on art.
Are treacherous. Call them "drawing-room tigers". Cut off their tails to prevent vertigo.
The one at the Botanical Garden was brought over in a man's hat.
Find out the smallest details of their private lives, so that you can run them down.
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.
Nobody knows what this means.
Display a lyrical fondness for them when there are people present.
Coitus, Copulation
Words to avoid. Say: "Intimacy occurred..."
Make fun of our ancestors who feared them.
Important modern discovery.
Always have a mania for drawing up lists of their names.
Nobler word than red.


Wax indignant over it, even though the crime is somewhat infrequent.
In the old days people dined at noon. Now they dine at impossible hours. The dinner of our fathers' time is our lunch, and our lunch is their dinner. A meal as late as our dinner shouldn't be called dinner, but supper.
Emblem of knowledge. Proves nothing.
Always preceded by "the good". Is a marvel while he enjoys your confidence, a fool as soon as you've fallen out. Are all materialists: "You can't find the soul with a scalpel."
Tower with an architectural shape. Express surprise that it stays up. Cite two examples: the Dome of the Invalides and that of St Peter's in Rome.
Always horrible. The straw in it is always damp. Nobody has ever come across a delightful one.


Early Rising
A sign of morality. IF one goes to bed at four in the morning and rises at eight, one is lazy; but if one goes to bed at nine in the evening and gets up the next day at five, one is an active type.
Refer to the four corners of the earth, since it is round.
Said only of monuments.
All antique vases are Etruscan.
The easiest thing in the world with the help of Latin and a little ingenuity.
Say that it proves the rule. Don't venture to explain how.


When visiting a farm, one must eat nothing but wholemeal bread and drink nothing but milk. If eggs are added, exclaim: "Heavens, how fresh they are! Not a hope of finding any like these in town!"
All news is without it.
Yet another cause of the Revolution. The initiation is a terrible ordeal. Cause of dissension among married couples. Distrusted by the clergy. What can its secret be?


There aren't any left.
Polite word to avoid calling a woman an old cow.
Genteel way of referring to a woman's breasts: "Let me kiss your adorable globes."
Don't mention it.


A neat hand leads to the top. Illegible: a sign of learning, e.g. doctors' prescriptions.
Always compare a cock in the midst of his hens to a sultan in his harem. Every schoolboy's dream.
Complain about their shape.
Arouse unwholesome curiosity. Try to see one.
Language of the ancient Egyptians, invented by the priests to conceal their shameful secrets. To think that there are people who understand them! But perhaps the whole thing is just a hoax?
Hydra-Headed Monster
Of anarchy, socialism, and all other alarming systems. We must try to conquer it.


Those who think differently from you.
Pretend to have had a great many, and complain that you have lost them all.
There are always too many in poetry.
Always "lively". Be on your guard against it. When you lack it, attack it in others. To write a novel, all you need is imagination.
Always "cuneiform".
Inspiraction (Poetic)
Aroused by: the sight of the sea, love, women, etc.


Everything there is made of china.
As good as a gun if you know how to use it.


The natural speech of man. Spoils one's style. Useful only for reading inscriptions on public buildings. Beware of quoting Latin tags: they all have something risqué in them.
Too many of them in Parliament. Their judgment is warped. Of a lawyer who is a poor speaker, say: "Yes, but he knows his law."
Always say: "fiat lux" when a candle is lighted.
Noble animal. Always plays with a large ball. Well-roared, lion! And to think that lions and tigers are just cats!
Occupation of idlers.
Say of a lucky man: "He was born with a caul." You don't know what that means and neither will your listener.


Utter this word with horror, stressing each syllable.
When in good health, make fun of it.
Sign of a noble heart and a lofty mind.
There are always too many in any writer's style.
The limit of respectable pleasures; beyond it, whatever is done is immoral.


How beautiful Nature is! Say this every time you are in the country.
The ruin of the French language.
Blamed every time a disease baffles comprehension. This satisfies the listener.


Second letter of the Greek alphabet, since everybody always says: "The alpha and omega of..."
Man who has travelled widely.
Make fun of everything that is original, hate it, jeer at it, and annihilate it if you can.


Lends prestige. Strikes the imagination of the masses. We need more and more of it.
Completely useless and out of date.
Caring for them is equivalent to practising all the virtues.
Should be castrated. Sleep with their housekeepers and give them children whom they pass off as their newphers. Still, there are a few good ones all the same.
Always "fundamental". Nobody can tell their nature or number; no matter, they are sacred all the same.
Needs only to be stated to be solved.
Useless edifice.


If Napoleon had had them, he would have been invincible. Enthuse about them, saying: "I, my dear sir, who am speaking to you now, was at X this morning: I had taken the train to X, I transacted my business there, and by X o'clock I was back here."
You should always order the dishes not usually served at home. When uncertain just order what the others around you are eating.
Induce reverie; make a landscape poetic.


Scenery (Stage)
Isn't real painting. All you have to do is to splash paint on the canvas and spread it with a broom; distance and lighting do the rest.
The cause of our present demoralization. Argue about the way the story will end. Write to the author suggesting ideas. Fly into a rage when you find that one of the characters bears your name.
After saying "God bless you!" start a discussion on the origin of this custom. It is amusing to say that Russian and Polish aren't spoken but sneezed.
Acts on your stomach like a broom. Never forget to quote Monsieur Prudhomme's famous remark: "I don't like it and I'm glad I don't, because if I liked it I would eat it - and I can't stand it." (Some people will find this perfectly reasonable and won't laugh.)
All wear red berets and tight-fitting trousers, smoke pipes in the street and never study.


"What is simple is always in good taste." Always say this to a woman who apologizes for the simplicity of her dress.
Avoid being thirteen at a table; it brings bad luck. The sceptics should not fail to joke: "What's the difference? I'll eat enough for two!" Or again, if there are ladies present, ask if any is pregnant.
Sexually exciting.
Time (Our)
Thunder against it. Deplore the fact that there is nothing poetic about it. Call it a time of transition, of decadence.


Mix only with people who have been vaccinated.


Substitute for everything, even reputation.
Topic for discussion among men, The best is claret, since doctors prescribe it. The worse it tastes, the purer it is.
Always honest, unless he is rioting.


Young Gentlemen
Always sowing wild oats. This is as it should be. Express astonishment when he doesn't.
Young Lady
Utter these words diffidently. All young ladies are pale, frail, and always pure. Prohibit, in their interests, every kind of reading, and all visits to museums, theatres, and especially the monkey-house at the zoo.
What a wonderful thing it is! Always quote these Italian verses, even if you don't know what they mean: "O Primavera! Gioventu! Primavera della vita!"