A NY Times article by Craig S. Smith, “Académie Solemnly Mans the Barricades Against Impure French,” describes the sedate, not to say molasseslike, activities of the Académie Française, which “has been toiling for 70 years on the dictionary’s ninth edition and has reached only the letter P.” (The new edition is online up through the word NÉGATON ‘Particule élémentaire chargée d’électricité négative.’)
The eighth edition, published in 1935, has 35,000 words, but the current edition is already up to 50,000 and will probably reach 70,000 before the academy reaches the end of the letter Z. The pace is so slow that by the time the edition is done, the early letters of the lexicon will be largely out of date.
The academy, founded in 1635 under the sponsorship of Louis XIII’s chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu, has been quietly engulfed by the slow collision of tradition and modernity that remains one of the central dynamics animating Western Europe today…
[Maurice] Druon defends the academy’s tempo largo. “We need 50 years to know that a word is really in use and won’t disappear,” he said. But even he finds progress on the dictionary as slow as ripening Camembert in January.
He says that the academy has fallen off its pace in turning out a new edition roughly every half century, in part recently because of the interruption of World War II. By the 1980′s, he realized that with the academicians’ sluggish speed and the plethora of fast-appearing new words, the academy would not complete the dictionary before the end of the 21st century.
To restore credibility to the project, he accelerated the process and started publishing the academy’s progress in periodic installments that are eventually grouped into volumes. Two volumes have been published so far, taking the ninth edition through the word “mappemonde,” or a map of the earth presented in two side-by-side circles. Of the 11,500 words in the second volume, 4,000 are new….
The academy does not use freelancers, as many lexicographers do. Its staff of 10 scholars work through the academy’s eighth edition and consult commercial dictionaries, specialized glossaries and the computerized Treasury of the French Language database, which is a nearly complete catalog of the 180,000 French words ever used, including obsolete words.
They prepare words, both old and new, for consideration by the Dictionary Commission, which consists of 15 academicians who meet at the academy for three hours every Thursday morning around an oval table behind a red-stained wooden door… After a civilized lunch, the commission members join the rest of the academicians for an hour and a half in the academy’s vaulted meeting room, a hushed temple of maroon suede upholstery and blue-gray silk walls…
Few mortals have ever witnessed the academy at work. The privilege is reserved for monarchs and heads of state, and “no more than 19″ have been so honored in the academy’s nearly 400-year history, Mr. Druon said.
When asked if a journalist might attend one of the working sessions, he threw his head back and bellowed, “Never!”
The Dictionnaire, of course, is not merely a repository of vocabulary but a source of admonition as to correct usage; thus when an immortel is moved to address another as “espèce de con!” he will bear in mind that “Le mot Espèce est féminin, quel que soit le genre de son complément” and will treat the expression, if not his interlocutor, as feminine.
(Thanks for the link, Bonnie!)