Plus ça change…

COVID-19 has upended much of life as we know it and, though halting progress toward the fabled “new normal” is being made in the U.S., in countries such as Brazil and India the virus is still wreaking havoc in the lives of many, leaving heartache and misery in its wake.

A major, though far less devastating, change has also occurred in our linguistic landscape. Phrases in English that either didn’t exist (social distancing), were rarely heard outside of their specialized fields (personal protective equipment, or PPE), or that had their meaning broadened (quarantine, lockdown) have become part of everyday conversation in the anglosphere. 


This linguistic shift wasn’t limited to English, of course. Anywhere that COVID-19 touched, the language of the people of that place changed to accommodate it. 

This was especially evident with the announcement that the 2022 edition of Le Petit Larousse dictionary, one of the canonical reference texts for the French language, would incorporate a record 170 new words. 

The Guardian gives a list of some of these words for anglophone readers, while France Info quotes Bernard Cerquiglini, professor of linguistics and advisor for Le Petit Larousse, as saying he’s “never seen such a linguistic change.” While some of these words are foreign borrowings that are, at best, tangentially related to the pandemic (e.g., VPN and émoji), several are neologisms, linguistic repurposings, or semantic expansions such as télétravailler (remote work) directly related to the new reality that we entered in early 2020. 

Other additions include déconfinement, intubé, and s’enjailler, which comes to European French from Ivorian French, which borrowed it from the English enjoy (itself from Old French enjoier).

Notable among the inclusions in the new Le Petit Larousse are terms like racisé (roughly equivalent to the English term racialized). These words, born out of the unrest that began in the United States sparked by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, are a reminder that, though the racial unrest in the U.S. has its roots in a particular history of anti-Black discrimination, that discrimination in and of itself is not unique to the U.S. 

Though certainly considered one of the authoritative repositories of the French language (this author has many fond memories of pouring over a brightly colored illustrated Le Petit Larousse des débutants as a child) it is of course l’Académie Française that acts, with varying degrees of effectiveness, as gatekeeper of the language. While they may not be terribly concerned with the various portmanteaus and calques that have emerged in fully Gallicized form, it remains to be seen what les immortels will think of the many anglicisms that will be making an appearance in the newest Petit Larousse.

One thing is certain: language, that nimble vehicle in which we live our lives, will continue to adapt and expand to encompass, and describe, the ever-changing world around us.

Michael Reid
Michael Reid, Managing Editor at MultiLingual, is an educator, translator, and language, culture, and diversity consultant with over 20 years of experience. He speaks six languages fluently and another seven to basic competence. He also speaks just enough Klingon to negotiate safe passage through the Neutral Zone.

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