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  • The Place of Words: The Académie Française and its Dictionary during an Age of Revolution by Michael P. Fitzsimmons
  • Sanja Perovic
The Place of Words: The Académie Française and its Dictionary during an Age of Revolution. By Michael P. Fitzsimmons. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. xv + 259 pp.

The hold of the Académie française over the French language is a bone of contention to this day. Michael Fitzsimmons’s sweeping yet detailed study recovers the history of its [End Page 459] famous dictionary as it collided with the French Revolution, whose unstoppable force was reflected in the approximately 1,400 new words it added to the French language. Yet, the Académie’s fifth edition of the dictionary, published in 1798 and commissioned by the Convention nationale, chose to omit these new words as well as new meanings of existing words, publishing instead a curtailed list of 418 revolutionary terms in the form of a supplement. This despite the overwhelming consensus that a new, bold style of language was one of the chief markers — vehicle even — of the passage from monarchy to the republic. A particularly egregious omission occurs under the entry ‘revolution’, which references the English and Swedish revolutions without mentioning the recent events in France. Fitzsimmons’s succinct account tells the story of the omissions, elisions, and obfuscations of the dictionary’s fifth edition and its afterlife under the Napoleonic administration, which also sought to exert control over language by omitting controversial neologisms. Tracking the dictionary from its first edition, which took sixty years to be published, to 1835, when the sixth edition finally appeared, Fitzsimmons’s fascinating study also tells another tale: of the glacial pace of scholarship by committee and the reluctance of any establishment — revolutionary or otherwise — to acknowledge change that comes from outside or below. Particularly revealing are the series of purges that have accompanied the dictionary, from the expulsions of energetic individuals such as Saint-Pierre and Furetière by an obsequious Académie, protective of its interests, to the shutting down of dynamic publishers who sought to improve it under Napoleon, to the final purging of the Institut national’s most talented members (this was the republican successor to the Académie). By refocusing attention on the Revolution’s keywords, this study also underscores the importance of different editions in revealing how vocabulary is politically and ideologically constructed and not simply registered or collected. As Fitzsimmons demonstrates, the failure of the 1798 edition to acknowledge the sea change in the meaning, style, and uses of the French language also exposes, a contrario, the problem of naming the revolutionary event. It was not just neologisms: the Revolution ushered in a completely new relation to time and history in which present and future usages of words mattered more than their historical meaning. Significantly, the most successful dictionaries were produced by foreigners seeking to communicate and translate revolutionary language abroad. That said, while the institutional lens through which Fitzsimmons tracks the dictionary is amply justified, it is occasionally monochrome. This book could be profitably read alongside more general cultural histories of the ‘combat des dictionnaires’ which had so profoundly marked the eighteenth-century Republic of Letters, anticipating the revolutionary pamphlets which took on a dictionary form. It also illuminates new, mostly untapped sources for theoretical histories of political concepts, including how revolutionary terms emerged as slogans, and what Reinhart Koselleck calls ‘counter-concepts’.

Sanja Perovic
King’s College London


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pp. 459-460
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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