Have you ever heard someone refer to language as being alive?
New words pop up all the time, but the past eighteen months have seen a particular influx of terminology related to the covid-19 pandemic. In a recent article for France Culture, French journalist Fiona Moghaddam noted that pandemic-related vocabulary accounts for 60 to 70% of the new words added to the 2022 edition of Larousse, one of the classic French dictionaries. Included is everything from medical terms like nasopharyngé, urban planning terms like coronapiste, and work-related vocabulary such as télétravailler—one who handles professional work remotely.
The pandemic has affected every detail of our daily routines, from our workspaces to our forms of greeting, and in perhaps the most lingering alteration to everyday life, language has followed suit.
Why add words to the dictionary?
The covid-19 pandemic has obviously had far-reaching effects on language, but what exactly causes words to be added to a dictionary?
Two main criteria affecting the addition of new words to the French lexicon are mentioned in Moghaddam’s article by the director of the Dictionnaire et Périscolaire department at the Larousse, Carine Girac-Marinier. These criteria include:
- The frequency of a given word’s use
- Whether or not the new word will outlast a particular historic moment
Incessant news coverage and continually updated public health guidelines have certainly satisfied the former criterion, while huge social upheavals brought about by the pandemic have indicated consequences that will far outlast 2021. Sea changes brought about by the pandemic include permanent remote work, as in the case of Twitter employees; France’s Ministre des Solidarités et de la Santé advising against la bise; and, of course, the millions of deaths worldwide.
What sort of words were born in 2022?
Certain words have been included in the Larousse which are not directly related to the pandemic but reflect the huge shift in lifestyle resulting from it. These include words from the technological field, such as VPN and click and collect, which also has a French version, cliqué-retiré. The uptick in technological terminology is a logical consequence of increased uses of telecommunications to maintain social distancing. New words related to food preparation, such as batch cooking and mocktail, have also appeared, in part due to the closing of restaurants and other eating establishments, accompanied by an increase in varieties of home cooking.
Still other words, which are not specifically related to covid-19, have been granted official status after being a part of everyday speech for years, such as émoji. In addition to new words that have been integrated into the French lexicon, seldomly used older have been revived or taken on new meaning. Aéroporter is now used in reference to viruses as well as people, in the medical domain as well as the military. The official recognition of such words as being central to French discourse reveals just how significantly our altered lifestyles have affected the language we use.
The growing pains of new vocabulary
If there seems to be an inundation of English words flowing into the French language past normally vigilant linguistic gatekeepers, Le Monde reminds us that fewer of them appear in this edition of the Larousse than in preceding years.
The French are well known for monitoring their language, at least at the official level, and these new words have assuredly been vetted for relevance and applicability to francophone life. The Académie française, founded in 1634, is responsible for polishing and finetuning the French language, and determines whether or not certain words are acceptable candidates. Its forty members set the rules that govern new words, e.g., what gender they are, the ways they inflect, and how to spell them properly.
Such efforts may, in fact, not reach the finish line in time to get picked up in common usage, as in the case of the name for the disease itself, covid-19, whose gender seemed to morph like quicksilver upon entry into the French consciousness, slipping past lexicographers and guardians of the langue de Molière, as journalists threw out segments on a topic that, like the disease, quickly spiralled out of control.
While Canadians, most notably the Office québécois de la langue française, pounced on the linguistic parameters of the term with the determination of a caribou, and quickly determined that the name for the disease, une maladie, after all, was a feminine word, the Académie française brought out its gender reveal during France’s first period of quarantine months later in the “Dire, ne pas dire” section of its website, even including the English terminology at the origin of the covid acronym as justification. By this time, half the journalists reporting on the issue in France, many of whom did not normally cover medicine, treated the word as either the name of the virus itself or a foreign word, both of which are normally designated as masculine. The Académie française concedes metonymy as a source of frequent use of the masculine gender for covid-19, as the disease has, for many, taken on the gender of the pathogen that causes it, but advises in favor of the logic that grants acronyms the gender of the word at the root of a given term, as illustrated by la S.N.C.F. (Société nationale des chemins de fer français), being une société.
After much deliberation, the 2022 edition of the Larousse has officially granted gender fluid status to the term covid-19. The notable flexibility of the term coincides with an expansion of the number of words granted a French ID. Instead of the standard 150 limit per year, lexicographers of the Larousse have allowed in 170, due to an avalanche of pandemic-related terminology.
It seems that much has had to adapt to our “new normal” over the past eighteen months, and the French language is no exception.