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The Place of Words: The Academie Francaise and Its Dictionary during an Age of Revolution
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The Place of Words: The Academie Francaise and Its Dictionary during an Age of Revolution (Hardback)

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The primary responsibility of the Academie Francaise to compose a dictionary of the French language intersected with major undercurrents of the French Revolution, and its significance continued through the Napoleonic period and into the Restoration. Yet, despite being such a prominent institution under the Old Regime, scholarship on the Academie during these periods remains largely neglected. From its origins in the late seventeenth

century, there have been nine editions of the dictionary-of those nine, the fifth edition (published in 1798) is unquestionably the most controversial. When the National Convention commissioned it two years after it had suppressed the Academie, it expected the edition to highlight the ideals of the French Revolution and republic.

Instead, the Academie delivered a dictionary comprised of anachronistic values and present-tense definitions of abolished institutions, the Revolution mentioned only in brief in a hastily-prepared supplement consigned to the end of the second volume. For its failure to capture the current state of the French language, most contemporaries judged it harshly, and its deficiencies even led Parisian publisher Nicolas Moutardier to publish a competing edition in 1802. The dictionary

became the focus of protracted litigation that Napoleon Bonaparte's government increasingly used to assert its control over language. Indeed, Bonaparte met personally with the Institut National preparing the sixth edition, making clear his desire that it not contain Revolutionary neologisms. Eager to see the new

edition appear, the Bonapartist regime committed financial resources and established a timetable for its completion within five years. Bonaparte, however, fell from power before it was completed. The restored Bourbon dynasty, though also eager to see the new edition completed, was less concerned with the control of language, and the sixth edition appeared in 1835, five years after the Bourbon dynasty was overthrown. Drawing on previously unused sources, A Place of Words is the first

book-length study of the controversial fifth edition of the Academie Francaise. Spanning over half a century of changing regimes, the edition provides unique insight into the ways in which each government between the beginning of its preparation after the fourth edition's publication in 1762 and the publication

of the sixth edition in 1835 viewed the role of language as an instrument of control.

Michael P. Fitzsimmons is Professor of History at Auburn University Montgomery. His previous works include From Artisan to Worker: Guilds, the French State, and the Organization of Labor (2010) and The Night the Old Regime Ended: August 4, 1789, and the French Revolution (2003).

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