Lexicographic revolution in Quebec

Gabrielle Saint-Yves

Researcher at the Trésor de la langue française au Québec, Université Laval

(Paper originally presented at the Modern Language Association Convention in San Diego in December 1994)

© October 2001 Gabrielle Saint-Yves

This article considers the socio-historical aspects of the Quebec Lexicographic Revolution [1]. It describes the Quebecization movement and its lexicographic consequences. It compares two controversial contemporary Quebec dictionaries and their examples of linguistic specificity: Dictionnaire du français Plus à l'usage des francophones d'Amérique (Poirier 1988), and Dictionnaire québécois d'aujourd'hui (Boulanger 1992). It attempts to show the extent to which Quebec French penetrated the new dictionaries, and whether the authors' contributions were well received [2].

1. The Quebecization Movement

The sixties in Quebec, otherwise known as the Quiet Revolution, brought change and turmoil to the province. Rapidly students from universities, cégeps and, high schools transcended their status as étudiants canadiens-français, and proudly emerged as étudiants québécois, whose awakening nation wished to secede from Canada and develop into a distinct society. In a very short time, the community was surrounded by teachers who had joined the Parti québécois, whose banner la fleur de lys reflected a passionate solidarity. A vivid national identity had been created. Subtle nuances and colourful images were appearing in Quebec French. In addition, neologisms were being created by journalists, writers, and singers to express the prevailing political stream of consciousness and its social movement: péquiste (member of the parti québécois), québécitude (the nature of Quebec social reality and philosophies), indépendantiste (separatist), anti-anglais (anti-English), trudeaumanie (Trudeaumania), les mesures de guerre (war measures), les Yvette (pejorative term used to describe women who stay home), souveraineté-association (sovereignty-association). The language of Quebec's cultural revolution emerged from these historical developments.

1.1. The Quebec Linguistic War

Concurrent with that Quiet Revolution, a great linguistic battle surfaced as the people of Quebec began to redefine their cultural identity. The desire for a linguistic definition, a lexical self-portrait, was ignited. Two opposing schools of thought clearly established their positions through the media and in the arts. The defendants of joual – a colloquial and politically vested variant of French spoken in the Montreal area, characterized by a large use of vernacular expressions and Anglicisms – and their opponents, the more conservative wing of Quebec society led by a purist ideology defined as International French, brought to the surface heated debates.

Through the years, the linguistic dilemma was fueled by new laws and policies implemented mostly by the Parti québécois (led by René Lévesque), which mandated the Office de la langue française (OLF) to legislate over important linguistic matters. [3] In reaction to polarized and antagonistic views concerning the linguistic model of Quebec French, Claude Poirier, a linguist from Laval University, questioned the validity of so-called "International French", stressing the fact that Quebec's distinctiveness should be described in a dictionary. He accepted the challenge to adapt a French dictionary for the Quebec public: Dictionnaire du français Plus à l'usage des francophones d'Amérique (DFP), published in 1988 by the Centre Educatif et Culturel de Montréal, to reflect the linguistic usage of North American Francophones.

A major lexicographic void had been filled, as the launching of the DFP monopolized media attention, and stirred up the Lexicographic Revolution Movement in Quebec. The dictionary industry boomed, taking full advantage of Quebec nationalistic sensitivities. The Dictionnaire québécois d'aujourd'hui (DQA), edited by Jean-Claude Boulanger, was published a few years after the DFP and rekindled the hottest Quebec linguistic issue. This pertained to the recognition of a different, yet legitimate, lexical identity (an endogenous linguistic norm [4]) parallel and complementary to that of France and other Francophone countries or regions. Quebec dictionary makers had followed, more than one hundred and fifty years later, in the footsteps of American lexicographers. [5] They were now symbolically fighting for the right of all Francophones to have dictionaries tailored to their own cultural images and their specific linguistic needs.

1.2. Controversial Quebec Dictionaries: DFP and DQA

Claude Poirier and his team at the Trésor de la langue française au Québec combined their efforts to redesign for Quebec a French dictionary (DFP). More than four thousand Quebecisms (defined as words or meanings not used in France) were added to the list of entries, and a large number of cultural, literary, encyclopedic and toponymic references were included as well. These additions and contextual transformations allowed Francophones in America to recognize their own language specificity in a reference tool used later in the classroom. According to Russon Wooldridge (1989: 177), the DFP was a dictionary answering the need for linguistic recognition and cultural autonomy; the DFP had replaced the 'français de France' by the 'français québécois standard':

The DFP established itself as a model for future general dictionaries of Quebec French, in a one volume edition. It was the first descriptive dictionary to use the French spoken in Quebec and Canada as a linguistic reference or norm, and to consider as "foreign" words and meanings only used in France. The DFP became an important stimulus for lexicographic change in Quebec and, though it suffered some imperfections, its originality played a major role in inspiring many lexicographers to adapt or write new dictionaries. It contributed to the development of lexicographic autonomy in Quebec by describing a linguistic usage and a cultural reality that is québécois.

Following the lexicographic Quebecization trend, a new and non-prescriptive dictionary was published in 1992, Dictionnaire québécois d'aujourd'hui (DQA), directed by Jean-Claude Boulanger and supervised by Alain Rey of the Robert publishing house. The dictionary was an attempt to go beyond the DFP and represent all registers of Quebec spoken French, including socially banned, or taboo expressions. Russon Wooldridge (1993: 249) called it "le meilleur miroir dictionnairique existant du français canadien général," a useful tool for teaching French from Canada, representing "l'affirmation de l'identité culturelle et linguistique du Canada francophone". However, many Quebec linguists, the Office de la langue française (OLF), and language teachers emphatically disagreed both with the selection of entries and its sociolinguistic labels. In reaction to media debates and social pressure, the Quebec Ministry of Education banned the pedagogical use of the DQA in the classroom. [6]

2. Linguistic Autonomy: Lexicographic Examples

In the DFP, Poirier was prudent in his choice of Quebecisms. He included common informal words such as niaiseux (dumb), and cave (jerk), but felt that the public was not prepared to see slang expressions included in a Quebec dictionary before a general consensus on a Quebec norm could be reached. However, Poirier clearly defined the characteristics of joual and provided many examples in the DFP: "Variété de français québécois qui est caractérisée par un ensemble de traits (surtout phonétiques et lexicaux) considérés comme incorrects ou mauvais et qui est identifiée au parler des classes populaires. [...]; c'est dire non seulement «joual» au lieu de «cheval», mais aussi «l'coach m'enweille cri les mits du gôleur» au lieu de «le moniteur m'envoie chercher les gants du gardien», proclamait-il encore." [7]

Going against a strong prescriptivist tradition, Boulanger wished in the DQA to include the vocabulary of popular culture and numerous joual words, such as tsé (like/ you know), bluff, and crisse (derived from "Christ") in his dictionary. He was criticized for not consistently labelling nonstandard language as slang, vulgar or informal speech. School teachers also took issue with some of the selected nomenclature. The lexicographic description of offensive language, such as religious swear words and other taboos, was considered unacceptable among critics, journalists, and the Quebec Ministry of Education. The DQA was totally unappealing to many Quebec users who associated dictionaries with "proper French". [8]

2.1. Sensitive Issues: Borrowed Words

In the case of borrowed words, both dictionaries chose to welcome Amerindianisms, such as achigan, ouaouaron, ouananiche, and atoca. Poirier indicated the origin of achigan ("Mot algonquien") and atoca ("Mot d'origine amérindienne"). He also produced many hitherto encyclopedic definitions concerning Amerindian culture, language and history (see: algonquien, amérindien, amérindianisme, attikamek, autochtone...). Boulanger did not include the origins of all Amerindianisms. In the case of atoca, the lexicographer simply defined the word as an "Arbrisseau des tourbières produisant de petites baies au goût acidulé qui deviennent rouges en mûrissant." However, when describing ouaouaron, he chose to specify the origin of the word: "Dans ce mot d'origine amérindienne, l'élision est rare." Even though Boulanger acknowledged in the introduction the importance of Ameriandianims ("les créations plus anciennes mais extrêmement importantes et variées des langues amérindiennes (ex.: wigwam) et de l'inuktitut (ex.: qiviut)"), one can witness some arbitrary and non-systematic labelling choices.

In regard to Anglicisms [9] which have had negative connotations since the nineteenth century, perceived as symbols of assimilation, acculturation, conquest, and humiliation, Poirier chose to be sensitive to the socio-political situation. He carefully noted in the definition of Anglicisms such as fournaise (furnace), prérequis and badge, that the use had been criticized ("2. Cour.[Emploi critiqué, d'ap. l'angl. furnace]"), since it did not reflect a certain ideal of a Quebec linguistic norm. Those warning signals explicitly guided the user around the limit of Quebec linguistic tolerance:

Other Anglicisms (defined as "Façon de parler, locution propre à la langue anglaise. [...] Mot emprunté à l'anglais." [11] such as cipaille (seapie), brunch, club, club-sandwich, gang, arena, poudre à pâte (baking soda), algique (algic), shortcake, paparmane (peppermint), T-bone, robine (rubbing alcohol) were clearly identified as mot anglais, or de l'anglais, d'après l'anglais, de l'américain.

On the other hand, Boulanger included many Anglicisms. He was criticized for including break, bum, hot chicken, baseball, best-seller, bungalow, bull-dozer... Boulanger's attempt to eliminate linguistic censorship led him at times to a paradoxal situation. For instance, break and week-end were identified as Anglic. whereas bum and bull-dog were not. The theoretical reasoning behind such labelling would not be easily understood for users who neglected to read the introduction: "Par ailleurs, certains anglicismes sémantiques ou des calques phraséologiques ne sont pas étiquetés comme tels; ils se sont si bien intégrés à l'usage qu'il n'a pas semblé opportun de signaler leur origine étymologique anglaise. Ils sont généralement notés comme appartenant au niveau de langue familier [...]". [12] A strong negative reaction could only be expected on the part of teachers, whose awareness of the questionable use of Anglicisms in formal situations was well understood. One can only imagine the polemic that arose from the insertion of non-labelled Anglicisms in the DQA. Interestingly and in contrast, contemporary French dictionaries expressed fewer reservations about the insertion of Anglicisms, and until recently, have not been affected by socio-political constraints on language issues.

2.2. Quebec Specificity: Feminization and Francisms

Unlike Quebec, Belgium and Switzerland, France has always been very conservative in regard to feminist linguistic concerns and has not revised linguistic treatment of gender. On the other end, Quebec lexicographers Poirier and Boulanger tried to introduce in their dictionaries feminine equivalents for all careers and professions, including a terminology designed and approved by the OLF. [13] The dictionaries have welcomed new linguistic forms inspired by feminist ideology. Poirier innovatively indicated at the end of the definition of professeur, a comment about the feminization movement and official linguistic policies:"(Comme forme féminine, l'OLF recommande professeure)". Other examples of feminized titles present in the DFP are: auteure, écrivaine, menuisière, charpentière, forgeronne, pompière, docteure, une ministre, une consule, une médecin, une mannequin, une marin...

Boulanger went beyond a discrete recognition of professeure, auteure, docteure and chose to acknowledge its full official status by providing examples of the feminine usages neatly intertwined with masculine ones: "Elle est professeure de musique. Professeur agrégé, titulaire (à l'université). Professeure de piano, de danse."

The DFP chose literary examples to illustrate aesthetic collocations and metaphoric connotations (Poirier quoted Germaine Guèvremont to illustrate the meaning of canot: "Le petit canot de chasse, le canot si versant était là échoué, qui se berçait sans amarres, parmi les joncs au soleil."). In doing so, Poirier mentioned many important female writers, spicing the metatext with a female literary presence, [14] while the DQA strictly opted for constructed examples. A few examples of authors used in the DFP include Gabrielle Roy (see: placoteux, niaiserie, placoter, maganer), Antonine Maillet (see: sagouine, enfargé, prusse, mitan), Marie-Claire Blais (see: magasinage), Clémence Desrochers (see: accoter, achalant, char, niaiseux), Madeleine Ferron (see: vadrouille, banc, adonner), Anne Hébert (see: camp), Madeleine Gagnon-Mahony (see: canadienne), Françoise Gaudet-Smet (see: piton), Germaine Guèvremont (see: canot, capot), Suzanne Paradis (see: enfargé) and, Monique Proulx (see: niaiser).

The Quebec Ministry of Education (strongly inspired by feminist activists in Quebec) played a role in accelerating linguistic changes with respect to feminization and the representation of female images in definitions and illustrative examples in dictionaries. But, one cannot deny that both lexicographers Poirier and Boulanger, immediately acknowledged these new sociolinguistic trends as they were emerging.

Yet, on a different level, Poirier displayed his scholarly boldness by being the first lexicographer to include Francism in a dictionary. He defined Francism as a particular French lexical use, distinct from the Quebec or Canadian one ("francisme: [...] Fait de langue (prononc., mot, tournure, etc.) caractéristique du français de France. Marchand de couleurs* est un francisme et même un parisianisme."). In other words, a Francism describes meanings, pronunciations and idioms specific to France (see: cartable, glace (sucre glacé), répétiteur, chef-lieu, souper, diner, déjeuner, fève, gendarme).

The ideological weight of the metalinguistic use of the label France clearly positioned Poirier in opposition to the defenders of an exogenous linguistic norm. In fact, if you closely observe the lexical typology elaborated by Poirier (1995a), you will notice that the conventional use of Canadianism has been replaced by Quebecism or Acadianism. [15] The new typological classification found in the DFP reveals a methodological reflection about the description of lexical entities and shows a strong desire to explain philological relationships within the Quebec linguistic system.

When dealing with the order senses within an entry, one can notice in the DFP under the entry bleuet (myrtille in France) that the first meaning described is that of a blueberry, while French dictionaries would define the word as a flower (Le Nouveau Petit Robert,(1993): "Centaurée à fleur bleue, commune dans les blés."). Poirier did not neglect to describe the French use, but did so only under the third meaning: "3. En France, centaurée bleue..."; this example allows us to observe another important contribution of the dictionary. Boulanger, inspired by the same approach, defined the French use of bleuet under the fourth meaning ("(France) Plante à fleur bleue.").

Boulanger chose to organize the microstructure of entries according to the frequency of the use of words in Quebec. Consequently, as Québécoises and Québécois consult their new dictionaries, they will now look into a mirror that does not challenge the essence of their identity; however, there is no guarantee, as expressed by certain journalists, that they will like the image reflected!

3. Backlash: The Return of Le Petit Larousse?

I have tried to demonstrate that the DFP was the instigator of the Lexicographic Revolution in Quebec. It compelled by its sheer existence a profound reexamination among lexicographers of issues pertaining to a definition of a Quebec linguistic norm, different from a "Parisian"' one and from joual. The birth of a Quebec French dictionary provoked equally strong positive and negative media reactions, sparking debates among non-linguists such as teachers, language chroniclers, and the general public. The Quebec Ministry of Education also took a position and, through its linguistic authorities, intervened in the dictionary war and prohibited the use of certain dictionaries in the classroom.

Fearing economic loss and Quebec governmental rejection, the dictionary industry reacted and published numerous Quebec content dictionaries. French publishers decided to adapt their dictionaries to serve a Quebec clientele by including frequently used Quebecisms. Remarkably, bookstores started to promote Quebec dictionaries as ideal Christmas gifts! The ideology put forth in the DFP and in the DQA destabilized the somewhat conservative OLF and forced it to reevaluate its lexical recommendations. In the rest of Canada, Francophones are starting to feel the impact of this Quebec lexicographic tidal wave. Acadians have reevaluated their own linguistic needs in terms of dictionaries and Yves Cormier published in 1999 Dictionnaire du français acadien. [16]

Now that the French language has become the symbol of l'identité québécoise, [17] the dictionary is de facto the official Declaration of Independence from Paris, which does not necessarily deny a strong cultural and linguistic bond to France and other Francophone countries. However, a few months after the Referendum, strolling in Vieux Québec and dropping into bookstores, I was astonished to see Le Petit Larousse (1996) displaced once again to the front shelves, while both the DFP and the DQA were quietly sitting in a dusty corner in the back of the store. Somewhat perplexed, I asked myself: Are we witnessing a moment of calm and uncertainty before another wave of nationalism and the birth of even more assertive Quebec dictionaries at the onset of the 21st century?


BALTHAZAR, Louis, 1990, Bilan du nationalisme, Montréal: Editions de l'Hexagone, 212 p.

BOULANGER, Jean-Claude (ed.), 1992, Dictionnaire québécois d'aujourd'hui, Saint-Laurent: DicoRobert, xxxv+1269 p.

HAEBLER, Ted, 1989, "The Reception of the Third New International Dictionary", in Dictionaries, n° 11, p. 165-218.

MENCKEN, Henri Louis, 1995, The American Language: an Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States, New York: (4th ed. and two Supplements, abridged, with annotations and new material by R. MacDavid) A. A. Knopf, xxv+777+cxxiv p.

Office de la langue française (OLF), 1990, Répertoire des avis linguistiques et terminologiques, Québec: (3e éd. revue et augmentée) Gouvernement du Québec, avril, 251 p.

POIRIER, Claude (ed.), 1988, Dictionnaire du français Plus à l'usage des francophones d'Amérique, Montréal: Centre Educatif et Culturel, xxiv+1856 p.

POIRIER, Claude, 1995a, "Les variantes topolectales du lexique français: propositions de classement à partir d'exemples québécois", in Michel Francard and Danièle Latin Le régionalisme lexical, Louvain-la-Neuve: De Boeck and AUPELF-UREF, p. 13-56.

POIRIER, Claude, 1995b, "De la Soumission à la Prise de Parole: Le Cheminement de la Lexicographie au Québec", in Cultures, Ideologies and the Dictionary, Tübingen: Ed. Braj B. Kachru and Henry Kahane, Max Niemeyer Verlag (Lexicographica. Series Maior, Band 64), p. 237-252.

REY-DEBOVE, Josette and REY, Alain, 1993, Le Nouveau Petit Robert, Montréal: DicoRobert, xxxv+2467 p. + Annexes.

SAINT-YVES, Gabrielle, 1996, "La prise en compte de l'Acadie dans les nouveaux dictionnaires québécois", in Catherine Philiponneau Les Acadiens et leur(s) langue(s), Moncton: CRLA), p.175-188.

WEBSTER, Noah, 1828, An American Dictionary of the English Language, (Vol.1). New York: S. Converse.

WOOLDRIDGE, Russon, 1989, Review of: Dictionnaire du français Plus à l'usage des francophones d'Amérique, in University of Toronto Quarterly, 59-I, p. 176-178.

WOOLDRIDGE, Russon, 1993, Review of: Dictionnaire québécois d'aujourd'hui, in University of Toronto Quarterly, 63-1, p. 247-250.


1. I would like to express my gratitude to Louis Balthazar (Laval University), Jean-Claude Boulanger (Laval University), Claude Poirier (Trésor de la langue française au Québec, Laval University), and Pierrette Vachon-L'Heureux (Office de la langue française) for granting me interviews that were invaluable in the preparation of this paper. I would also like to thank Russon Wooldridge (University of Toronto), Steve Freeman, Jonathan Rose, and Donna Farina (colleagues from Drew University) for their comments on drafts of this article.

2. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the M.L.A. Lexicography Discussion Group at the San Diego Convention in 1994. The panel was organized by Donna Farina and entitled: Dictionaries as Stimuli for Change.

3. Bill 101 is an example of governmental linguistic interventionism in Quebec: "C'est à compter des années 1970 que l'Office de la langue française a commencé à s'intéresser à la normalisation terminologique. Cette activité normalisatrice coïncidait avec l'émergence au Québec du concept d'«aménagement linguistique» et à la mise en place, à l'Office, de vastes programmes d'élaboration de terminologies ayant pour objectif principal la francisation des entreprises. [...] Le 26 août 1977, l'Assemblée nationale du Québec sanctionnait la Chartre de la langue française (loi 101), une loi très complète en matière d'aménagement linguistique." (OLF 1990: 7)

4. We define as endogenous norm a linguistic consensus reached within Quebec amongst linguists, lexicographers, teachers... On the other hand, an exogenous norm refers to a linguistic norm defined outside of Quebec, namely in France: "Il faut bien comprendre ici que l'orientation qui commence à émerger n'est pas de rejeter la norme de France, mais bien de la moduler pour tenir compte de l'histoire linguistique et de l'identité des Québécois, lesquelles peuvent difficilement être prises en considération à Paris, [...]." (Poirier 1995b: 45)

5. We refer here to Noah Webster's first dictionary published in 1828 (Preface): "Language is the expression of ideas; and if the people in one country cannot preserve an identity of ideas, they cannot retain an identity of language." (See also Mencken 1995).

6. The Quebec Ministry of Education publishes an annual list of pedagogically approved reference books. The DFP is listed amongst the accepted dictionaries, while the DQA is not.

7. Joual is an important symbol of the Quiet Revolution: "Inscrit au coeur de la Révolution tranquille le mot joual aura donc marqué l'histoire récente du Québec." Poirier (1988: 901)

8. The reception of the DQA reminds us to a certain extent of what happenened in the case of Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1961). See Haebler's (1989) annotated bibliography of reactions and responses.

9. Questions concerning the quality of the French spoken in Quebec have been the subject of ongoing discussion since the 17th century. When the English came into power in 1760, an attempt was made to tarnish the image of the "conquered". The Anglophones denounced Quebec language as worthless; nothing more than a "corrupt version" of French. Consequently, Anglicisms were perceived by many language censors, journalists and teachers as symbols of defeat. Take note that the term Anglicisms had been associated in early glossaries (Maguire, Caron and Rinfret) with barbarismes, locutions vicieuses, mots bas et révoltants, péché. However, when we discuss Anglicisms in this paper, we simply refer to the historical origin of the word.

10. Poirier 1988: xvii-xviii.

11. Poirier 1988: 71.

12. Boulanger 1992: xi-xii.

13. On feminization issues: "Un premier avis de l'Office de la langue française, relatif à la féminisation des titres, a été publié à la Gazette officielle du Québec du 28 juillet 1979. Cette recommendation énonçait des principes généraux qui conduisirent à une recherche visant des solutions explicites aux cas problèmes qui se présentaient." (OLF 1990: 189).

14. Poirier included in the DFP a few hundred detailed encyclopedic developments related to historical, linguistic and literary issues. Quebec's traditional cultural flavour and feminine presence is savoured in Mother Chapdelaine's kitchen where taffy is being made. See tire (taffy): "[...] une dernière fois la pâte fut étirée à la grosseur du doigt et coupée avec des ciseaux, à grand effort, car elle était déjà dure. La tire était faite."

15. For a comparative study of the Acadian presence in new Quebec dictionaries (DFP and DQA), see Saint-Yves (1996) or, On-line article: http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~wulfric/articles/saint-yves/.

16. See review by Russon Wooldridge (2000).

17. I owe this idea to Louis Balthazar (Laval University), with whom I discussed Quebec nationalistic and politico-linguistic issues (Summer 1994): "Cet autonomisme a été conçu bien différemment d'une période à l'autre. Il a été axé jadis sur la tradition et sur des valeurs religieuses; il se manifeste aujourd'hui dans une société sécularisée en pleine mutation. Mais il apparaît toujours comme une volonté d'affirmation distincte fondée sur quelques caractéristiques socio-culturelles liées à l'usage de la langue française dans sa variante québécoise." (See Balthazar 1990: 210).