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Vive la difference! Neologisms, Quebecisms and French dictionaries

Barbara McClintock, C.Tr.
Canadian Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters Council


I think my love affair with the French language began when my family moved back to Quebec from Ontario, and I was given my first French illustrated reader in Grade 5. I remember studying the pictures in that book to learn the vocabulary.

Today, I have Anglophone colleagues representing all the provinces from B.C. to Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as some from across the pond, who share a deep passion for languages and who, like me, have pursued translation as a profession. I also feel privileged to work with some highly educated and cultured Francophones who remind me of how difficult it is to protect a minority language. To put the situation into perspective, a well-known author once said that he couldn't imagine living somewhere where he was unable to speak the wonderful English language. A similar distress would be felt by anyone who was unable to speak his or her native tongue, for whatever reason.

I recently read a Cyberpresse interview by Didier Fesson of Le Soleil (June 26, 2011) with the "architect" of Le Petit Larousse, Jacques Florent, Go to note 1 who discussed the 2012 edition of the encyclopedic dictionary. The fact that the new edition boasts 3,000 neologisms piqued my interest, so I decided to take a closer look. It had been a number of years since I had cracked open Le Petit Larousse, as I tend to use my old beat-up copy of Le Petit Robert, which I have in my office. (Of course, Le Petit Larousse is known for its illustrations, which still fascinate me as much as my old reader did.)

One of my Francophone colleagues had some interesting comments when I asked her what she thought about the new French dictionary. "Why buy a new dictionary if there aren't many new words in it?" Why indeed? "Are there still hundreds of English words in it?" she asked me, adding that "Quebecisms are criticized." In fact, Le Petit Larousse doesn't accept many Quebecisms, but it is chock full of English expressions. The interviewer Didier Fesson asked why there are so few new Quebec terms in the dictionary. You can count the new entries on the fingers of one hand: chicouté, endisquer, s'évacher and smoked-meat! (Fesson adds that there are also three new references to Quebec usage in the entries for écarter, protecteur and torchère.)

These are legitimate questions. If French publishing houses were to study the issue with an open mind, they might discover the richness and creativity of Quebec terms instead of making excuses about the number of dictionaries sold. In fact, many Quebec expressions are not actually new, but are rooted in old French. The same problem has occurred in the past with English-language authorities in the U.K. who criticized U.S. English until it was pointed out to them that the very expressions they were criticizing had existed in England for hundreds of years. For more, read Bill Bryson, author of Made in America (HarperCollins, 1994), who has quite a lot to say on that subject.

Canadian French and European French—equally valid, though not identical. Vive la différence!

Return to note 1 Petit Larousse