I spent a glorious morning on Wednesday reading the dictionary. Actually, I read several dictionaries. And an encyclopedia. To be completely honest, I didn’t read the whole dictionary or encyclopedia; I read selected entries in each one.

My terrain? The dictionaries included in the ARTFL project’s  Dictionnaires d’autrefois database. It’s a great collection that spans almost three full centuries of thought.

Given my work in eighteenth-century studies, I generally focus on the dictionaries published between 1694 and 1798:

  • Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, 1st edition (1694)
  • Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, 4th edition (1762)
  • Jean-François Féraud, Dictionnaire critique de la langue française (1787-1788)
  • Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, 5th edition (1798)

Within these, I am most interested in the fourth and fifth editions of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, as they neatly bookend my current research project: the French version of Tissot’s treatise on onanism appeared in 1760 and it was closely followed by what would soon come to be seen as his magnum opus, the Avis au peuple sur sa santé, which appeared just a year later. The letters to Tissot start streaming in immediately after this. The letters end in 1797, the year of Tissot’s death.

These two editions also bookend a particular interesting period in European political and intellectual thought: the French Revolution at the end of the century is perhaps the most obvious marker, but we can’t forget the publication of such key works as Rousseau’s Emile (1762), Julie (1761), Du Contrat Social (1762) (is my Rousseau bias showing yet?).

Dictionaries and encyclopedias provide fascinating insights into how a community thinks (or thought). A survey of several dictionaries, published across a span of several decades, can be particularly intriguing because it allows you to trace the trajectory of meaning (this is also why I enjoy perusing the Oxford English Dictionary Online http://www.oed.com/). Meanings can change subtly, even in a space of 30 years, and those subtleties can be deeply revealing.

Among other things, yesterday’s forays took me to such concepts as “peuple” and “patrie.” On the surface, those terms would appear to be self-evident, and, indeed, there are only minor changes in their definition between 1694 and 1798. But these changes are, to me, highly significant.

So let’s take a closer look.

In 1762, the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française offered the following under the first heading for “peuple.”

PEUPLE. s.m. Terme collectif. Multitude d’hommes d’un même pays, qui vivent sous les mêmes lois. Le peuple Hébreu. Le peuple Juif. Le peuple d’Israël. Le peuple Hébreu a été appelé le peuple de Dieu. Le peuple Romain. Les peuples Septentrionaux. Les peuples d’Orient. Les peuples Asiatiques. Les peuples du Nord. Les peuples de Provence, de Dauphiné, &c. Tous les peuples de la terre.

Looking more closely at the entry under the second heading offers further insight:

PEUPLE se prend quelquefois pour Une multitude d’hommes qui sont d’une même religion, soit qu’ils soient du même pays ou non. Ainsi en parlant des Juifs, on dit, que Le peuple Juif est dispersé par toute la terre.

En parlant à un Prince de ses Sujets, on lui dit, Vos peuples, votre peuple.

Il se dit aussi d’Une multitude d’habitans qui vivent ou dans une même ville, ou dans un même bourg ou village. Il y a beaucoup de peuple dans Paris. Tout le peuple du bourg, du village accourut.

Il se prend aussi quelquefois pour La partie la moins considérable d’entre les habitans d’une même ville, d’un même pays. Il y eut quelque émotion parmi le peuple. La plupart du temps, le peuple ne sait ce qu’il veut. Il n’y avoit que du peuple à la promenade. ….

Interesting here is the way that this concept integrates questions of socio-economic class with broader concepts of social location, education, religious belief, and geography.

The 1798 definition is very similar: there is still a Jewish people, spread across the earth; there is still a grouping of residents living in the same region, there is still a prince and he still has his people.

But the new definition elaborates on the idea of the prince and his “peuple”:

En parlant à un Prince de ses Sujets, on lui dit, Vos peuples, votre peuple, non pour exprimer que le peuple est sa propriété, mais qu’il est l’objet de ses soins.

In this new iteration, the Prince’s subjects are not his possessions to do with as he pleases; rather, they are possessions for he must take responsibility: the people are the object of his care and concern. This is a substantive change, one that acknowledges and reflects the political and ideological transformations wrought by the French Revolution (it is entirely possible that this meaning was already implied in previous editions; however, it is clear that the editors of the dictionary felt it was important to articulate this point directly and overtly in this edition).

When we look at the word “patrie,” we see similar operations at play. Let’s start with the Encyclopédie entry (also available through ARTFL; English translations of some articles are available through the Encyclopedia of Diderot and d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project , for which I have also contributed five translations).

Interestingly, Jaucourt, author of the Encyclopédie definition of “patrie” links the concept to the idea of the family: “patrie,” of course, comes from the Latin root pater, or father. But he also actively gestures towards a maternal imaginary, waxing poetic on the idea of patrie as nurse and mother:

C’est une nourrice qui donne son lait avec autant de plaisir qu’on le reçoit. C’est une mère qui chérit tous ses enfans, qui ne les distingue qu’autant qu’ils se distinguent eux – mêmes; qui veut bien qu’il y ait de l’opulence & de la médiocrité, mais point de pauvres; des grands & des petits, mais personne d’opprimé; qui même dans ce partage inégal, conserve une sorte d’égalité, en ouvrant à tous le chemin des premières places; qui ne souffre aucun mal dans sa famille, que ceux qu’elle ne peut empêcher, la maladie & la mort; qui croiroit n’avoir rien fait en donnant l’être à ses enfans, si elle n’y ajoutoit le bien – être….

What is clear, in any case, is that “patrie” is linked to a notion of family, of belonging, of membership. The “patrie” is a family cocooned in generosity, benevolence, care and grace, an entity that wishes good for all who belong to it.

So what does this mean for the dictionary entries? The 1762 entry offers the following:

PATRIE. s.f. Le pays, l’État où l’on est né.

The definition here brings forward questions of belonging by virtue of birth (which, once again, links to the idea of the family and the nursing mother), but what is more interesting are the examples offered:

La France est notre patrie. L’amour de la patrie. Pour le bien de sa patrie. Pour le service de sa patrie. Servir sa patrie. Défendre sa patrie. Mourir pour sa patrie. Le devoir envers la patrie est un des premiers devoirs. Cicéron est le premier des Romains qui ait été appelé le père de la patrie. On étend quelquefois ce mot à des Provinces, à des Villes. Paris est sa patrie.

Patrie inspires deep commitment and responsibility; the responsibility to protect, to serve, to defend … to die for the homeland. Belonging carries with it immense responsibilities.

These elements are also present in the 1798 version, but with one key difference. By 1798 it is no longer enough to die for the homeland. This conceptualization has been expanded:

Il est doux de mourir pour la patrie.

Death is no longer just a responsibility; it is sweet, good and right, a balm undertaken for the good of the whole.

After this spate of hiring is finished, I’ll get to frolic more frequently with dictionary entries. I can’t wait.


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