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Creating a Personal Dictionary

The Art of Creating a Personal Dictionary


Michel Tournier proposes that we all create our own personal dictionary. Here is a selection from his as an example.

Dictionaries for writers are like a storage depot where they find their raw materials. It is no surprise, as a result, that many have made their own dictionaries. Gustave Flaubert, for example, wrote his Dictionary of Received Ideas, in which he aimed to compile “all the evil that comes from our gigantic ignorance.” In the entry for the word dictionary, it reads: “As it says, ‘it is made for the ignorant.’”

The journalist Ambrose Bierce wrote his The Devil’s Dictionary with humor and brilliance and in which, for example, marriage is described as: “The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two.”

In his book Le pied de la lettre: Trois cents mots propres, Michel Tounier undertakes a selection of the abundant content of the dictionary to reduce it to his own vocabulary. This exercise, he says, is highly recommendable for anybody. Of the thousands of words that surround him every day, there are only 300 that have been really appropriated, and which fascinate him either for their beauty of their definition, of their surprising etymological origin or because he invented them himself. Tournier takes a tour through the dictionary like someone who collects flowers or shells to make a bouquet or a collection. This book, he says, can be replicated by anybody and it will always be a different book. Following are 10 words from the book’s 300, a selection of a selection.


A word invented by Michel Tournier in his book Vues de dos. It is equivalent in spatial terms to an anachronism in time. Surealism uses anatopism a lot.

Example: imagine the Eiffel Tower in the middle of the Sahara desert.


Cosmic, Cosmetic.

These two words, of apparently differing meanings, owe their similarity to the Greek origin that means order, organization, arrangement.



Speculative hallucination: a mental imbalance during which the patient believes they see themselves as if in a mirror.


Fable, Fabulous.

Carious divergence between a noun and an adjective. Fable evokes the small, fabulous the large.



Gaston Bachelard: “Lord, give us our daily hunger!”



He who looks at the hour (it is assumed that he who does it does so to deduce their fate).



Contrary to explosion. The word, as with the idea, is very recent. It likely dates back to World War II. We assume then that the destructive power of a bomb is more implosive than explosive. In effect, a bomb expands in the air as it explodes (explosion), but that first centrifugal movement is immediately followed by a centripetal movement, which is even more destructive. Which is why windows break and walls fall down with the impact of a bomb. The effect is not from a blowing but from a sucking.



The prestige of this color means it is identified with beauty (in Russian particularly, see the word alezan). In Spanish the Colorado River means red river. In French, rutilant means red, but also shiny, magnificent.



From the Latin sublimis: suspended in the air, that is in the air.



One of the most beautiful words in French, somber, strange, with a sound that is topped off with a touch of acidity. It is noteworthy that laconic, which is a neighbor in meaning, is of comparable beauty, although very different.

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