Slang terms and popular idioms are endlessly fascinating. Just think of the street smarts of the US, expressions like “Who dat?” and especially, “Word dat” (heard punctuating dialogue in the soulful New Orleans-based show, Treme), and the latest, “That’s dope” (featured in the gritty and likeable film, Dope). Not to mention the heavily charged words from our political scene: “Change,” for example, or “Life.” And then there are the new words that appear, “factoid,” “emoticon,” “meme.” Incredible to see words rise and mutate into new meanings right before our eyes!
The revolutionary period also witnessed an explosion of new words and new meanings. And there were people like us witnessing it happen, and writing dictionaries and novels expressing their opinion about those words. It was controversial then as it is now.
In Lioncel ou l’émigré (1795, 1800), a writer named Louis de Bruno provides a fascinating example of commentary on Jacobin speech. We know when he considers the revolutionaries ironically, because he puts their words in italics! (“Tu es un insigne menteur, un modéré, un honnête homme.”)
But words were also coined out of thin air or built on existing roots, as in our day. Which word from the following list was not invented in the 1790s?
- le terroriste
- la gauche / la droite
- la guillotine
- le traître