The Dictionary – a satirical compendium of the ‘received ideas’ of the French bourgeoisie – was discovered among Flaubert’s papers after his death. Flaubert was obsessed with conventional thinking, to which he attributed the bêtise that runs through his novels, especially the last, Bouvard et Pécuchet.
Some of the entries in the Dictionary have lost their topical sting, but it’s unnerving how many of the clichés live on in our mouths. While translating the Flaubert, I couldn’t resist the urge to jot down contemporary ‘received ideas’, some of which I publish here for my own, if nobody else’s, amusement.
AFFECTATION – Pretending to like someone.
ART – My three-year-old could do better. Never anything you’d want in your living-room.
BANKERS – Scum of the earth. Their wealth trickles down, apparently.
BUDDHISM – Religion for atheists.
BUTCHERS – Shop at the supermarket but always support your local butcher.
CHARITIES – Lifeboats, cancer, the latest earthquake appeal. Charity begins at home.
CHINA – All our efforts are pointless because of China.
CLASSICAL MUSIC – Must be relaxing.
CLIMATE CHANGE – What climate change? I was cold this morning.
CURRY – The national dish. Some of the most famous curries were actually invented in Birmingham.
DIANA – Everyone else went hysterical over her funeral.
DISABLED – You’re supposed to call them ‘differently abled’, which is bad English and political correctness gone mad.
DIVORCE – Can be brutal or amicable. Either way, it scars the children for life.
DOLPHINS – A swim with dolphins is a profound spiritual experience.
EDUCATION – You either pay in fees or through your postcode. The best head-start in life. “Education, education, education”; a rubbish slogan, when you think about it.
ELEPHANT – It’s in the room. I suppose it could be a rhinoceros or any large mammal.
EMIGRANT – Synonym for immigrant.
EUROPEAN UNION – We’d be better off out of it. Straight bananas. German expansionism by other means. Did we fight the war for this?
FAMILIES – Always hard-working.
FAT – Fat in a diet is less of a problem than carbohydrates.
FRENCH – They have flair when they aren’t surrendering or going on strike. Logical but incapable of reason. When in groups, all they say is “Hon-hi-hon-hi-hon.”
FUR – Only good when it’s fake. Mind you, it’s making a comeback.
GAYS – Always flamboyant. Dress well. Some of my best friends are gay (so long as they don’t shove it in my face).
GENIUS – Any cultural figure one admires is a genius.
GERMANS – Win at penalties. Always leave their towels on deck-chairs. They’ve done wonders to come to terms with what they did. Achtung!
GLASGOW – You don’t want a kiss in Glasgow. Some parts of it are worse than Gaza.
HARE – Basically a rabbit with longer ears.
HINDUS – Middle-class Asians.
HIPPIES – Soap-dodging.
HOODIES – Don’t hug them. Some are as young as eight!
HORSE – Early stage in a girl’s sexual development. Catherine the Great apparently died under one.
IMAGERY – The stuff you have to help your children find in their English homework (see symbols).
IRISH – Now we see their wealth was just a blip. Great crack. Smiling eyes. Blarney in Killarney.
ISLAM – Subjugates women. Converts have to change their names and give up lucrative careers in the music industry. Be careful what you say about it.
JAPAN – Inscrutable. Make robots.
JESUS – Still picture him as Robert Powell.
JEWS – Had a hard time of it but don’t always do themselves any favours. The only gold Mercedes I ever saw was in Golders Green.
KNIFE CRIME – Deplorable, though reassuringly it’s mostly black-on-black.
KORAN – If you as much as look at one, some mullah will want to cut your throat.
LAUGHTER – It can cure cancer.
LAWYERS – Cockroaches and lawyers would survive a nuclear holocaust.
LESBIANS – Hot, except when they really mean it, in which case they’re butch.
LITERATURE – Always buy the Booker Prize-winner. Don’t get round to reading it, though.
MATERIALISTIC – Other people are materialistic.
MEDIA – Echo chamber of the liberal elite: the silent majority never gets a look-in.
MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT – On the make.
MILK – Knowing the price of a pint is proof of normality.
MONEY – A necessary evil. Can’t buy you love. Other people will do anything for money. And yet it’s only noughts on a computer screen.
MYTH – Synonym for lie. Related to legend but can’t think how.
NATURE – The green stuff outside.
OLIVE OIL – Should always be drizzled.
OPERA – Football made it famous. Not all singers are fat.
OTTERS – They’re making a comeback. Will bankrupt angling societies.
PEDERAST – Synonym for paedophile.
POET – What do you do for a living?
POETRY – Good for weddings and funerals.
POLICE – Given a hard time by the press. Never have anything but good to say about them. Utterly incompetent.
PRIESTS – Kiddy fiddlers, except for the nice vicar who took me for my confirmation.
PRISON – A holiday camp for criminals.
QUANGO – Cause of outrage.
RADICALS – Lefties are radicals when they aren’t wets.
RECYCLING – Can’t keep track of all these bins. Fascism through the back door.
SCOTLAND – The Brave. Utterly dependent on England. Let them have their independence, the ungrateful Jocks.
SUBURBS – Our friends live in the suburbs, we live on the edge of the country.
SUMMER – Another washout. Roll on global warming, I say.
SYMBOLS – What literature is made of. Find them and you’ve cracked the book!
SYPHILIS – Sexually transmitted disease of the past.
TASTE – There’s no accounting for it. Gay men have taste – too much sometimes.
TEACHER – Bolshie, put-upon, sadistic, inspirational. We should value teachers. On the other hand, we can’t spend irresponsibly given the deficit.
TURBINES – Blighting our green and pleasant land. They don’t work anyway.
TURTLE – Aquatic tortoise.
WAR – Only go into it for the right reasons.
WHEREFORE – Shakespearean for ‘where’.
WIT – Old-fashioned name for banter.
WITNESS – Always in grave danger: requires police protection.
WRITING – Pretty soon, computers will do it for you.
You can buy Flaubert’s Dictionary, in elegant hardback (perfect for the bedside or, let’s face it, the loo), direct from the publisher.