“We do not present Alain Rey. ” So that was introduced regularly in conferences or shows in which he participated and the lexicographer lexicographer lover of words, whose name remains attached to the dictionary Le Robert. His bald-faced face framed by long white hair, his mustache, his glasses and his cleverly mismatched dandy clothes had made him a familiar character, a sort of scholar to Professor Sunflower, chasing words with his butterfly net.
But it is above all his voice, calm and calm, that, from 1993 to 2006, the listeners of France Inter had become accustomed to find every morning in “The Word of the end”. Because, not content with being a “geologist” of vocabulary, scholar with encyclopedic knowledge, linguist, historian, lover of art and gastronomy, Alain Rey, who died on October 28, in Paris, at the age of 92 years, was a fascinating storyteller. He knew how to share his immense knowledge with gluttony, delicately explaining the history of words, the better to exhale fragrance and flavors – as when preparing truffles.
Interview: Alain Rey: “Hostility to the father was something fundamental”
Alain Rey was born on August 30, 1928 in Pont-du-Château (Puy-de-Dôme), into a Catholic family. His father, a polytechnician and… amateur tenor, was also a bibliophile, a passion he passed on to his son.
The training of the young “Rrreye”, very early in love with words, did not however cease to branch out, from mathematics to literature, then from medievalist studies and Sciences Po to economic journalism. In the meantime, he ended his reprieve and attended the officers’ school in Cherchell, Algeria. An experience that left a lasting mark on him: he saw nothing but contempt among the colonists and, among the officers of Saint-Cyr, arrogance and ” unacknowledged racism ” .
By responding to an ad published in… Le Monde, the young Alain Rey made a decisive encounter. Indeed, at the turn of the 1950s, the heir to a rich Pied-Noir family from Orléansville, Paul Robert, frustrated by the limits of existing dictionaries, nurtured the project of a new type of work, based not only on alphabetical order, but also on analog references (intertextuality before the hour…). Its reference: the dictionary of Emile Littré (1801-1881).
Alain Rey took part in this “ imaginative and improbable enterprise” alongside Josette Debove, his future wife. The latter, lexicographer, semiologist and academic, died in 2005 , after living together and working together for fifty years. The couple did not have children, but the many books to which they have contributed constitute an unrivaled posterity.
And first of all the “Grand Robert”, whose first edition (1953-1966), under the authority of Paul Robert, will be followed by a second (in 1985), before a new enlarged edition (in 2001, with Danièle Morvan). A titanic work of updating, requiring the thoroughness of Benedictine monks, but which has benefited over time from the contributions of computers and the most efficient printing techniques. Far from the handwritten files of Paul Robert, in Casablanca, at the start of the company …
In 1967, the first edition of Le Petit Robert appeared (under the triple leadership of Alain Rey, Josette Rey-Debove and Henri Cottez), which, “revised and amplified”, was followed by the Petit Robert of proper names. Undoubtedly new compared to its competitor, the septuagenarian Petit Larousse illustrated: greater openness to French in Quebec or Brussels, an ability to capture the zeitgeist, to integrate everyday words, including onomatopoeias or slang words.
Alain Rey, a great and eclectic reader, did not hesitate to illustrate the definitions with examples from living literature, from Céline to Frédéric Dard via Raymond Queneau. Le Petit Robert is, in his own way, a child of May 68.
A Dictionary of Expressions and Locutions (with Sophie Chantreau) followed in 1979, the preface of which, dense, introduced to a foraging and playful reading. In the manner of a previous work co-authored with his friend Jacques Cellard, holder of the “Chronicle of language” in Le Monde from 1971 to 1985: the Dictionary of unconventional French (the “Non con”, published by Hachette), anthology of slang and flowery expressions, where sex in all its forms and money obtained in all possible ways are king.
Another major step, the publication of a historical dictionary of the French language , in 1992. The success was the rendezvous. Told with rigor but in a lively style, the story of words reads like a novel. The publication, in 2005, of the French Cultural Dictionary was another key moment in the collective work carried out by Alain Rey. There, the great innovation, it is these boxes which come to enlighten by quotations or developments the definitions of the lexicographical part.
In addition to his activity as editorial director, Alain Rey has continued to publish works that are sometimes learned, sometimes of intelligent popularization, proving, if it were necessary, that it is not necessary to be abstruse to be rigorous. .
Among these, two original biographies: that of Emile Littré, the inspirer of Paul Robert (Gallimard, 1970), and that of Antoine Furetière (1619-1688), ancestor of modern lexicographers (Fayard, 2006); lexicology books, including a fascinating Dictionary in love with dictionaries (Plon, 2011); a Gallimard “Découvertes” on French (2008) ; “What do I know?” », A collection whose name suited him like a glove.
Because Alain Rey was, straddling two centuries, a learned but always modest heir to the humanists of the Renaissance, especially Rabelais, whom he practiced on a daily basis. As well as Persian, Hebrew, Arab or Greek scholars, thinkers and philosophers who developed, translated and transmitted a number of fundamental writings of humanity.
Having as his favorite word the adjective “Luciferian” (which comes from Lucifer, literally the “bearer of light”), Alain Rey left no one the pleasure of writing a Dictionary in love with the devil (Plon, 2013), to be put among all hands. One of his last works, illustrated with calligraphy by Lassaâd Metoui, tells of Le Voyage des mots. From the Arab and Persian Orient to the French language (Guy Trédaniel Editeur, 2013). Recalling with relevance that languages are without a homeland and play with borders …
Alain Rey in a few dates
August 30, 1928 Born in Pont-du-Château (Puy-de-Dôme)
1952 Start of collaboration with Paul Robert (1910-1980), with a view to creating a new dictionary
1953 First volume of Le Grand Robert
1967 First edition of the Petit Robert
1985 New edition of the Grand Robert of the French language
1992 Historical dictionary of the French language
1993-2006 He writes “Le Mot de la fin” on France Inter
2011 Dictionary of dictionaries love (Plon)
2013 Devil’s Love Dictionary (Plon)
2018 Homage to words (Hermann)
October 28, 2020 Death in Paris