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Inside the work of dictionary publishers

Every year we read how new words have been added to French dictionaries – this year, for example, these include uberizationhipster and burkini – making them a recognised part of the language.

30 August 2017
By Mark Hayes

But have you ever wondered what happens to the old words presumably bumped out to make space?

Well, that is not quite how it happens. As lovers of words, dictionary publishers try not to condemn them to death.

“From one year to the next, from one version of the dictionary to another, we don’t take away a word,” Carine Girac-Marinier, the director of Larousse’s French language department, said. “We add about 150 per year, as the French language becomes more and more rich.

“We might remove a few words during the big redesigns of the dictionary, which take place every 15 years or so. But it is relatively very few, because, for example, in 2012, of the 62,000 words contained in the Petit Larousse, only 200 words or meanings were removed.”

However they try to move them into other more specialised dictionaries, she said. “They are generally anglicisms that have gone out of fashion or which have been replaced by French words.” A good example is computer, which has been replaced by ordinateur.

“Of course, we keep all the words and meanings that are in use, and all the words and meanings that can be found in the great texts of the past by writers like Corneille, Molière or Victor Hugo, but sometimes we keep the source of the word but not necessarily the whole family around the word,” she said.

“For example, during the 2012 redesign we kept ‘VCR’ even if the object no longer exists, because we can find it by reading a book from the 1980s and a teenager might wonder what it is. But we have not kept magnétoscoper [very rare word meaning to video record].

“We refuse to remove words from our dictionary,” Marie-Hélène Drivaud, editor of the Robert dictionary, recently told “The words leave a trace: obsolete and modern must co-exist. We annotate with vieilli [old-fashioned] those that can be said by 80-year-old people and vieux [old] ones that are no longer said at all.

“To ensure this, we simply do surveys among people we know or young people. My daughter is the first one to tell me when I use an unfamiliar word.”

“It was only in 1993, when we did a big redesign of the Petit Robert, that we took out a few words,” she said. “They were mostly very obvious words such as essuie-plume [fountain pen wiper] or cache-corset [corset-cover].”

Ms Drivaud added that keeping old words is also justified by the fact that sometimes they come back into usage.  

“Some words disappear and return, like thune, which originally meant alms and then became a word for the five-franc coin in the nineteenth century, before being forgotten.

“It was resurrected in the late 20th century in a different sense, as a slang term for money.”

Deciding what words come in or go is not easy. Meetings between lexicographers and linguists at publishing houses may get heated.

“We are passionate about words but the criteria are rational and we are aware of having responsibilities towards readers,” said Ms Girac-Marinier.

 “There are bound to be tensions because some find certain words fundamental, others consider them unnecessary and it can be frustrating.”

Unlike the commercial dictionaries, updated frequently to describe the current language, the Académie Française’s one, aims to include only ‘good’, recommended French.

 As such it has an almost glacial approach to updates, to ensure words have stood the test of time (they should usually have appeared multiple times in reputable published work over a number of years). The ‘latest’ edition was finished in 1935 and work on the next one has reached ‘R’.

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