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10 of Voltaire's Favorite Bon Mots for Bastille Day

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It’s fitting to celebrate the writer Voltaire—born François-Marie Arouet—on Bastille Day, given that he himself was imprisoned there early in his writing career. As an Enlightenment philosopher and social critic, Voltaire helped champion revolutionary, humanist ideals such as freedom of religion and speech. That last in particular is a matter of pride for the French, whose love of debate goes hand in hand with their ideal of tolerance for opposing ideas. Though he didn’t actually say it, one of the most famous quotes attributed to Voltaire over the centuries was in fact a summary of his own writing: “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.”

There are many delightful words or phrases we can actually attribute to Voltaire. Below is a list of some of Voltaire’s choicest bon mots, used to add punch to his persuasions and sting to his satire. Use them to add a little extra flair to your conversations this July 14—while you indulge in some crepes and wine, of course. 

1. INFÂME

The target of his entire literary career, infâme translates to “infamous,” a blanket term Voltaire used to refer to injustice in any form: words, ideas, even individuals or groups. His rallying cry, écrasez l’infâme, or “crush the infamous,” encapsulates his manner of bringing to light the controversial events of his day to be judged in the court of public opinion.

2. MŒURS

When Voltaire published Essai sur les mœurs et l'esprit des nations in 1756, it was an early attempt to codify his era’s understanding of cultural differences, values, and nuances in a kind of "universal history." It comes from the same source as the English term mores, encompassing the habits, traditions and conduct of a given group. In Voltaire’s work, it was often employed to explain the insipid ways a culture can perpetuate wrongs. 

3. DÉMONTRER

A literal translation, "to demonstrate," doesn’t quite convey the nuance with which Voltaire wrote démontrer. Fitting with Enlightenment rationalism, his use was a reference to deduction through reasoning, and could be personally directed at one making a claim, at once disproving and denouncing an opponent. It was a phrase which could reveal Voltaire’s vanity, as when, discussing his views on Newton’s laws in his Dictionnaire philosophique, Voltaire boasts “Quel philosophe pourra me démontrer?”—“What philosopher will prove me wrong?”

4. AVOUER

Meaning to admit or confess, this verb does have an archaic cognate in English: "to avow." Writing frequently in response to rival philosophers, such as Rousseau or Pope, Voltaire was always careful to concede points of agreement before lambasting his contemporary thinkers. In debate, it can be an effective means of converting an opposing viewpoint to one’s own way of thinking. 

5. NÉANMOINS

While conceding a point can be a smart tactic, it’s necessary to sharply and tactfully turn the conversation back to the original argument. Néanmoins, meaning "nevertheless," provides just that transition, and can often be found in Voltaire’s treatises and essays. 

6. FRIPONS

“As long as there are knaves and fools,” Voltaire wrote, “there will be religion.” He was never afraid to criticize the negative aspect of any authority, religious zealots included. Fripons are knaves, more literally translated as rogues: unscrupulous takers of advantage of others, as prevalent then as they are now. 

7. RIDICULE

In order to prove a point, Voltaire was always taking absurd ideas to their extreme end. In his book Zadig, Voltaire satirizes the philosophy of Leibniz. Zadig meets a hermit, who kills a young child because of a crime he is destined to commit in the future—despite being innocent now—with the message that there is “no evil from which good does not come,” a direct jab at Leibniz’s “the best of all possible worlds.” He epitomized his empirical stand when he wrote to Prince Frederick William of Prussia about both sides of the God or no-God debate: “Le doute n'est pas un état bien agréable, mais l'assurance est un état ridicule.” Meaning, doubt is not a comfortable state, but absolute certainty is absurd.

8. OSER

Another handy verb of Voltaire’s, oser means "to dare," and was often wielded to build absurdity and sarcasm into his satires. 

9. ORGUEIL

The term orgueil—pride—shows up again and again in Voltaire’s verse as well as his prose, ever a vice he deplored despite having a fair dose of it himself. He left us the axiom, “L'orgueil des petits consiste à parler toujours de soi; l'orgueil des grands est de n'en jamais parler.”  Meaning: Pride in the lowly is to talk always of themselves; in great people, it is never to do so.

10. VACARME UNIVERSEL

In his 1764 Dictionnaire philosophique, mocking opponents of press freedom, Voltaire imagines cries of “un scandale, un vacarme universel dans votre petit coin de terre,” meaning a universal uproar whenever the devout take offense to an idea counter to their own. One of his most facetious phrases, it could certainly be used to satirize opponents as he had. Today, we can use it to describe the general atmosphere the legendary Voltaire was capable of producing, all with simply a pen and his mind. 

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      This Game About Soup Highlights How Tricky Language Is
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      Something Something Soup Something

      Soup, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food," is the ultimate simple comfort food. But if you look closer at the definition, you'll notice it's surprisingly vague. Is ramen soup? What about gumbo? Is a soy vanilla latte actually a type of three-bean soup? The subjectivity of language makes this simple food category a lot more complicated than it seems.

      That’s the inspiration behind Something Something Soup Something, a new video game that has players label dishes as either soup or not soup. According to Waypoint, Italian philosopher, architect, and game designer Stefano Gualeni created the game after traveling the world asking people what constitutes soup. After interviewing candidates of 23 different nationalities, he concluded that the definition of soup "depends on the region, historical period, and the person with whom you're speaking."

      Gualeni took this real-life confusion and applied it to a sci-fi setting. In Something Something Soup Something, you play as a low-wage extra-terrestrial worker in the year 2078 preparing meals for human clientele. Your job is to determine which dishes pass as "soup" and can be served to the hungry guests while avoiding any items that may end up poisoning them. Options might include "rocks with celery and batteries in a cup served with chopsticks" or a "foamy liquid with a candy cane and a cooked egg served in a bowl with a fork."

      The five-minute game is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but Gualeni also hopes to get people thinking about real philosophical questions. According to its description page, the game is meant to reveal "that even a familiar, ordinary concept like 'soup' is vague, shifting, and impossible to define exhaustively."

      You can try out Something Something Soup Something for free on your browser.

      [h/t Waypoint]

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