Feb 012019

Today is the birthday (1801) of Émile Maximilien Paul Littré , a French lexicographer and philosopher, best known for his Dictionnaire de la langue française, commonly called Le Littré. As a mild coincidence, on this date in 1884, the first volume (A to Ant) of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published. So it could be Dictionary Day.

Littré was born in Paris and studied at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand. He also devoted himself to learning English and German, classical and Sanskrit literature, and philology. Yet he originally decided to become a student of medicine in 1822. He passed all his examinations in due course, and had only his thesis to prepare in order to obtain his degree as doctor when, in 1827, his father died leaving his mother without means. He abandoned his degree at once despite his keen interest in medicine, and, while attending lectures by Pierre Rayer, began teaching Latin and Greek to earn a living. He served as a soldier for the populists during the July Revolution of 1830, and was one of the members of the National Guard who followed Charles X to Rambouillet. In 1831, he obtained an introduction to Armand Carrel, the editor of Le National, who gave him the task of reading English and German papers for excerpts. By chance, in 1835, Carrel discovered Littré’s skills as a writer and from that time on, he was a constant contributor to the journal, eventually becoming its director.

In 1836, Littré began to contribute articles on a wide range of subjects to the Revue des deux mondes, and in 1837, he married. In 1839, the first volume of his complete works of Hippocrates appeared in print. Due to the outstanding quality of this work, he was elected to the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in the same year. He noticed the works of Auguste Comte, the reading of which formed, as he himself said, “the cardinal point of his life.” From this time forward, the influence of positivism affected his own life, and, what is of more importance, he influenced positivism, giving as much to this philosophy as he received from it. He soon became a friend of Comte, and popularized his ideas in numerous works on the positivist philosophy. He continued translating and publishing his edition of Hippocrates’ writings, which was not completed until 1862, and he published a similar edition of Pliny’s Natural History. After 1844, he took Fauriel’s place on the committee engaged to produce the Histoire littéraire de la France, where his knowledge of the early French language and literature was invaluable.