How do new words get added to the French dictionary?
Posted by Josh on 23rd Feb 2023 in the blog in the category
Did you know that, according to the Trésor de la langue française, there are over 135,000 words in the French language?
This might be a hard fact to swallow for learners of the language, but it becomes decidedly less so when you realise that most of these words are too obscure or obsolete to make an appearance in everyday conversation, and that the average native French speaker only knows 15,000-20,000 words. According to Lingoda, as a learner you only really need to know 3,000 to speak French fluently.
Still, that’s quite a lot of words. And if that sounds daunting, just consider the fact that new words are being added to the French language every year. The important thing to note about these new words is that they aren’t obscure or old–fashioned at all. In fact, the reason they’re being introduced to the language is that they’ve become so common that French language authorities have been forced to recognise them as part of the language, and to give them the official seal of approval.
As with English, there is more than one French dictionary, and each makes its own decisions about which words to add. There are a few leading French dictionaries:
Dictionnaire de l'Académie française — last edition came out in 1935, so until the next one is completed, other ones are more commonly cited.
Trésor de la langue française — a 16-volume treasury of French words, the Trésor's purview is confined to words that were in usage from 1789–1960. As such, it doesn't reflect new additions to the French language, nor words that went out of fashion before the 18th century - but it's still an enormous amount of words.
Le Petit Robert — one of the more prestigious French dictionaries, named after the French lexicographer Paul Robert. It contains about 60,000 words.
Le Grand Robert — the big brother of Le Petit Robert, you're less likely to see this one in shops or on coffee tables, but it's a useful resource for discovering more advanced words in the dictionary. It contains around 100,000 words - so still not quite as many as the Trésor!
Le Littré — First published in 1863, this dictionary contains around 80,000 words, but is chiefly known for its focus on the evolution of the French language, with exhaustive etymologies.
Le Larousse — Probably the most used dictionary alongside The Robert(s), Le Larousse is noteworthy for its thorough and informative presentation of its roughly 90,000 words.
While it takes a long time for a new edition of a dictionary to come to fruition, thanks to the Internet these dictionaries can now add new words on a yearly basis, rather than having to wait decades for a reprint. But adding new words to the French language is an example of linguistic dynamism seen as more typical of the newer, supposedly less traditional dictionaries. In 2023, for instance, Le Robert added
l'écoblanchiment | (noun) abusive attribution of ecological qualities to a product, a brand
la gênance | (noun) feeling of embarrassment, discomfort experienced in an embarrassing situation.
l'instagrameur, euse | (noun) a person (influencer, content creator) who carries out their business by posting photos and videos on their Instagram account.
woke | (adjective and noun) describes someone who is aware of and offended by the injustices and discrimination suffered by minorities and mobilizes to fight them, sometimes in an intransigent way
and Larousse added
la non-fiction | (noun) prose writing that is informative or factual rather than fictional
le fan art | (noun) art created by a fan of, and featuring characters from, a particular TV series, film, etc.
l'invisibilisation | (noun) the act of being invisible, used to describe the occlusion of women in certain sectors of activity
le poké | (noun) a Hawaiian dish of diced raw fish, rice and vegetables
As you can see, these new additions to the French language are an eclectic bunch. While many are neologisms coined by French speakers, even more have their provenance in other languages, predominantly — and unsurprisingly — English.
In some years, however, you’re likely to see a wider theme represented by the new words. This is particularly the case when an event or phenomenon influences many of the conversations people are having, injecting their speech with new words and terms as a consequence. Not only have environmental themes dictated much of the new vocabulary, but the past few years have also seen an influx of COVID-related nomenclature thanks to the Coronavirus pandemic.
Even in 2023, some of these words are still trickling through. Le Petit Robert added 'Covidé' in 2023 to refer to someone afflicted with COVID, as well as 'Écouvilloner' ('to swab'), joining the ranks of 'Vaccinodrome' and 'Antivaccin' ('anti-vaxxer') which were added over the past couple of years — and no doubt we’ll see many more in the coming years.
Why do new words get added?
Typically, a word has to be in usage for quite some time before it gets added to the dictionary. The Larousse editors usually monitor the usage of a word for over 3 years before deciding to include it. For the Dictionnaire de l'Académie Française, it can take up to ten years. As we've written about elsewhere, the Academy is typically more conservative in its approach to incorporating new words into the French language, and has the habit of 'Frenchifying' Anglicisms.
But the other dictionaries take this business seriously too. They will usually consult a longlist of thousands of words, breaking them down into a few hundred they deem most worthy of inclusion. The Larousse committee is made up of 40 people, and final decisions are taken by a ‘grand sage’. Le Robert employs its team of expert lexicographers to the same effect.
So it’s worth keeping an eye on new words in the language. They’re chosen for a good reason, based on reliable metrics, and are the kind of words you’re likely to hear in French now and in the future.
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