how “Le Petit Robert” chooses its new words

Every year the famous dictionary welcomes new proper and common nouns, which often say a lot about time. Explanation by Géraldine Moinard, the new editor-in-chief.

Eco-fear, glottophobia, wokism, NFT, third place, grazer, stylometry, image greening: each new edition of the “Little” Robert gives rise to the introduction of new words and expressions into its corpus. A Prévert-style inventory that also serves as a barometer and traces something of the time behind the neologisms. Since its creation in 1967, this reference dictionary, long tested by the late Alain Rey (1928-2020), has surprised by 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 discourse: the press, literature, social networks… We are especially interested in their diffusion. If they are used a lot, but in one circle, they have little chance of being chosen. In any case, much less than rarer words circulating in different groups and different age groups. We also strive to assess its durability. It is rare for a “buzzword” to appear on our pages less than a year after its appearance, it is often much longer. We meet regularly to discuss it, certain words come to mind, such as this year NFT or wokism. Others can be voted on. We allow ourselves a little subjectivity, which helps us 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 from your lists?
Not this year and overall it remains extremely rare. Even if the paper version of the dictionary imposes limits on us, we strive to hold on to our three hundred thousand entries by pushing the walls and the columns of texts and by cheating with the model! Obviously we don’t have this limitation with the digital version. While some words become obsolete and obsolete, we want them to remain as the primary function of a dictionary is to explain, to illuminate. And then we like to follow the words, they can take on different meanings depending on the era, as is the case today with “bail”, “organic” or “unicorn”. Even start a new life, such as “incarceration,” a rare and old word two years ago. We always include directions for use, as well as references to associated words. The systematic use of analogies is kind of our trademark. Just because a word enters the dictionary doesn’t mean it becomes petrified!

By including “weed” 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 evolutions of language, to give their meaning and to put them into perspective, not to choose 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 is gradually gaining ground. Today it is increasingly used and distributed among younger generations. So according to our criteria, it has its place in the new edition. Even if on its own we can only rejoice that a word or expression provokes discussion – because it proves a population’s attachment to its language – we are surprised and often baffled by the reactions it has provoked. Little Robert has often been criticized – in the first edition, in 1967, Maurice Druon, then permanent secretary of the French Academy, had even accused it of “pick up words in the stream” – but never with such violence.

The Petit Robert of the French Language, Edition 2023, €66.90.

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