I know where your house lives, but sometimes the front door’s a struggle

Featuring Abel and Marguerite Chevalley and their Concise Oxford French Dictionary.

From Abel and Marguerite Chevalley’s intro to the 1934 Concise Oxford French Dictionary:

It is not sufficient to be a Frenchman, even highly educated, if you want to succeed as a French-English lexicographer. Nor can an Englishman, even with first-class honours in French, be guaranteed to find the best English equivalents for French words or idioms. Every living language gets stratified as it grows. Very few people are at home in its different strata. Mrs. Malaprop’s language was probably free of malapropisms when she spoke to her cook, and the most purist précieuse would perpetrate malapropisms of another sort if she had to deal with the butcher and the grocer. Languages are like houses: they must be lived in—from attic to basement—before they can be called ours. The number of people who have become familiar, in this intimate manner, not only with one but with several houses is, of course, limited.

Culture and knowledge are not sufficient. A taste for words as words; an instinct of divination leading in abstracto to the ‘mot juste’, and an insight into the risks and difficulties of others, less gifted; the sporting spirit that sustains, year in year out, a lifelong word-hunt; an acute sense of the correspondences and discrepancies between words of apparently the same sort and sound in two languages that are now frères ennemis and then “heavenly twins’, these are also not enough. A great thing, perhaps the greatest, is to have lived both French and English, meeting on their own ground all conditions of men, and transacting with them all kinds of business; to have travelled, under the sting of necessity, up and down the social order, always in a spirit of comprehensive sympathy but with that touch of amusement that goes to the making of humour. You must have run a hundred times, half angry, half smiling, from loft to cellar before you can flatter yourself that you know every turning, nook, and corner in your own house; and even then you knock your shins against unsuspected obstacles. What if the house were a double affair, more than half built in the air, of metaphors, shadows and shades, and visions, ever changing, ever moving, without perhaps one single exact counterpart in the two enchanted fabrics? I am not sure that the King’s English does in this sense belong to the King rather than to the bricklayer, and the French of France to the Académie rather than to the nearest pub. But I am sure that the lexicographer who has frequented both is also the best prepared for the task. These conditions must be sadly missing in the world of dictionaries.

I’ve been on holiday too long, but that’s still how I feel about borderline Dutch and Low German, and older houses in places like Hamburg and Strasbourg flash me back to ramshackle dwellings in the diseased swamp and blighted heath that separates the bishops of Utrecht and Münster. With other languages the feeling varies from residence through squatting to Airbnb (sorry, I broke the toilet). The Great House of Russian, on the other hand, is often as strange to me as the 60s West End of London to the anthropomartians above. How different the world might have been had Peter the Great spent some of his tobacco revenues on a translation of Erasmus’ proverbs.

The Chevalleys are interesting. Marguerite translated “from the American, English [sic] and Norwegian into French”, and it sounds as if her lexicography echoed the popular Protestant theology of her father, Auguste Sabatier. Abel has a German, but not a French, Wikipedia page because he represented the French state in the exclavation of East Prussia after the Treaty of Versailles. He wrote that “the English novel owes its existence and power to the authors of the 18th century and its prestige to Walter Scott”, and authored a study of Queen Victoria and a Ripper-type novel loosely based on the Beast of Gévaudan. Son Claude was a better mathematician than diplomat, applying from within the Great Satan for a job at the Sorbonne while simultaneously being rude about the artist then known as French science.


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