how “Le Petit Robert” chooses his new words

Every year, the famous dictionary welcomes new proper and common names, which often say a lot about the time. Explanations from Géraldine Moinard, its new editor-in-chief.

Eco-anxiety, glottophobia, wokism, NFT, third place, grazer, stylometry, image greening: each new edition of “Little” Robert gives rise to the inclusion of new words and expressions in its corpus. A Prévert-style inventory that also serves as a barometer that traces some of the time behind the neologisms. Since its inception in 1967, this reference dictionary, which was piloted for a long time by the late Alain Rey (1928-2020), has amazed at its openness to new uses and modernity. Three questions for the new editor-in-chief, Géraldine Moinard.

How do you enter new words?
The procedure is well established. We identify new words, the frequency with which they are used in different types of discourses: the press, literature, social networks … We are primarily interested in their distribution. If they are used a lot, but in a single circle, they have little chance of being elected. Much less at least than rarer words circulating, those, in several groups and different age groups. We also strive to assess its sustainability. It is rare that a “buzzword” enters our pages less than a year after its emergence, it is often much longer. We often meet to discuss what certain words impose, such as this year NFT or wokism. On others, there may be voting. We allow ourselves a little subjectivity, which allows us to differentiate ourselves from our competitors. We are often a bit of a forerunner.

“Words can start a new life, like ‘lockdown’, a rare and old word even two years ago.”

Conversely, are there any words that come out of your lists?
Not this year, and in general it is still extremely rare. Although the paper version of the dictionary sets limits for us, we strive to keep our three hundred thousand records by pushing to the walls and columns with texts and by cheating with the model! Of course, we do not have this limitation with the digital version. Although some words age and decay, we want them to remain present, a primary function of a dictionary system to explain, to enlighten. And then we like to follow the words, they can have different meanings depending on the era, as is the case today with “bail”, “organic” or “unicorn”. Start a new life yourself, like “confinement”, a rare and old word two years ago. We always include indications of use, as well as references to associated words. The systematic use of analogies is part of our trademark. It is not because a word enters the dictionary that it becomes petrified!

By including “iel” in your digital version a few months ago, you created controversy …
This is not our primary calling. As linguists and lexicographers, we are there to report on the development of language, to give their meaning and put it into perspective, not to take one side or the other. The word “iel”, which refers to a person of any gender, was invented in 2008, and although its use remains rare, it has gradually gained ground. Today, it is increasingly used and widely used among younger generations. According to our criteria, it therefore has its place in the new edition. Although we can only rejoice in the fact that a word or phrase creates debate – because it proves a people’s connection to its language – we have been surprised and often appalled by the reactions it has provoked. Little Robert has often been criticized – at the time of its first edition, in 1967, Maurice Druon, then Permanent Secretary of the French Academy, had even accused it of “collect words in the stream” – but never with such violence.

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French Petit Robert, 2023 edition, € 66.90.

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