Wokism, eco-anxiety, NFT: how “Le Petit Robert” chooses his new words

Each year, the famous dictionary welcomes new proper and common nouns, which often say a lot about the times. Explanations from Géraldine Moinard, its new editorial director.

Eco-anxiety, glottophobia, wokism, NFT, third place, grazer, stylometry, image greening: each new edition of the “Little” Robert gives rise to the entry of new words and expressions into its corpus. A Prévert-style inventory that also serves as a barometer, tracking down something of the times behind the neologisms. Since its creation in 1967, this reference dictionary piloted for a long time by the late Alain Rey (1928-2020) has surprised by its openness to new uses and modernity. Three questions to its new editorial director, 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 mainly interested in their distribution. If they are used a lot, but in a single circle, they have little chance of being elected. Much less in any case than rarer words which circulate, them, in several groups and different age groups. We also strive to assess its sustainability. It’s rare for a “buzzword” to enter our pages less than a year after its appearance, it’s often much longer. We meet frequently to discuss it, certain words impose themselves, like this year NFT or wokism. On others there may be a vote. 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 generally speaking it remains extremely rare. Even if the paper version of the dictionary imposes limits on us, we strive to hold 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 constraint with the digital version. Although some words age and fall into disuse, we want them to remain present, the primary function of a dictionary being to explain, to enlighten. 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, like “confinement”, a rare and old word two years ago. We always include indications on the use, as well as references to associated words. The systematic use of analogies is somewhat our trademark. It is not because a word enters the dictionary that it becomes fossilized!

By including “iel” in your digital version a few months ago, you created controversy…
This is not our primary vocation. 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 take one side or another. 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 disseminated among younger generations. According to our criteria, it therefore has its place in the new edition. Even if in itself we can only be delighted that a word or an expression causes debate – because it proves the attachment of a population to its language –, we have been surprised and often dismayed 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 “pick up words in the stream” – but never with such violence.

To read
The Petit Robert of the French language, 2023 edition, €66.90.

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Wokism, eco-anxiety, NFT: how “Le Petit Robert” chooses his new words

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