Dictionnaire des synonymes, des nuances et contraires
compiled by Dominique Le Fur, Yaël Freund, Dominique Vernier-Lopin et Chantal Tanet (Nuances).

Reviewed by Françoise Herrmann

Publisher: Le Robert Collection Les Usuels (France)
Publication date: 2005
ISBN: 2-84902-107-5
Price: €22.50 (Euros)
Available from: www.amazon.com

To avoid repetitions, target meanings more precisely, change register, and enliven and enrich your texts, you will certainly have used synonyms and antonyms. Whether listed in a thesaurus, as part of, or at the end of, a dictionary, or as a stand-alone semantic search function, lists of synonyms and antonyms are readily available both online and in bookstores and libraries. What is far less common, and refreshingly unique to Le Robert’s Dictionnaire des Synonymes, des Nuances et Contraires, are the Nuances - explanations of the differences, even subtle, between terms such as tissue and étoffe (material and fabric) you would otherwise believe almost interchangeable. Where all your existing sources of synonyms tend to ignore the boundaries between meanings, relying instead on user/reader intuition, Le Robert's Dictionnaire des Synonymes, des Nuances et Contraires points out the differences in similarities, explaining or indexing them. In the following, this tantalizing treatment of the differences of similarity, and the inclusion of phrases and expressions, are reviewed.

Le Robert’s Dictionnaire des Synonymes, des Nuances et Contraires is a heavyweight paperback comprising 1,245 pages. It contains 25,000 entries (including both words, phrases, or expressions), 200,000 synonyms, 22,000 antonyms, and nuances explained for 1,400 words. Le Robert’s Dictionnaire des Synonymes, des Nuances et Contraires also contains an index of the nuances (words very close in meaning for which explanations are designed and provided), thus enabling you to easily locate the articles containing the explanations in the dictionary.

The Nuances
Le Robert’s Dictionnaire des Synonymes, des Nuances et Contraires, as the title indicates, features an innovative dimension termed Nuances of which there are 1,400. These are small paragraph-length explanations of the subtle differences in meaning between terms that are easily and commonly used interchangeably. The Nuances appear in the text and are also indexed at the end of the dictionary for easy access. Thus, for example, you will find listed under the term légende (legend) an explanation of the nuance between légende and mythe (legend and myth). In the index, the entries mythe and légende both refer to légende where the Nuance or difference between each term is explained and located. Among the nuances explained, you will find explanations of the differences between: typique, spécifique and particulier (typical, specific, and particular); reduction, remise, ristourne, rabais (reduced price, discount, commission, and rebate); exact, correct (exact and correct); and monologue, soliloque (monologue and soliloquy). Whether the explanations draw on differences based on place, time (archaic), or domain, or whether they draw on grammatical considerations or more tangible differences in modes of action or the players involved, the Nuances are exquisite in capturing precisely those terms whose meanings merge, and in drawing boundaries between them. In the end, once you have consulted a Nuance, you will wonder how any confusion could have ever occurred.

The beauty of this dictionary is its focus on differences. Beyond the Nuances, differences between terms are clearly marked or indexed. For example, an évènement (event) is a péripétie (incident) when it is inattendu (unexpected), an accident (accident) when it is malheureux (unhappy), a bonheur (blessing) when it is heureux (happy), and a calamité, catastrophe, or désastre (calamity, catastrophy, or disaster) when it is grave (serious). Similarly, for example, a recueil (collection) is a catalogue (catalog): de renseignements (of information), such as an annuaire, almanach, répertoire (phonebook, almanach, directory); de chansons (of songs), or a chansonnier (songbook); de faits historiques (of historical events), such as annals, chroniques (annals, chronicle); de lettres (letters), such as correspondance (correspondence); of laws, such as a code (code); de fables (of fables), such as a fablier, bestiaire, ysopet (book of fables, bestiary, book of fables of the Middle Ages); or d’auteurs classiques (of classical authors), such as a chrestomatie (an anthology). Thus, Le Robert’s Dictionnaire des Synonymes, des Nuances et Contraires clearly marks the differences between terms that are listed as synonyms, leaving little room for confusion or fuzzy boundaries. This indexing of differences is most useful for translators where precision is of the utmost importance. As another example, the entry alone for the verb réparer (to repair) would probably be worth your while, as henceforth you will find vast differences in repair depending on whether the object is a wall, a machine, clothing, shoes, a watch, or a mistake.

Phrases and Expressions
Synonyms and antonyms are usually thought of as stand-alone terms. Le Robert’s Dictionnaire des Synonymes, des Nuances et Contraires includes 3,000 indexed phrases and expressions, as well as context for head words. Thus, you will find under the head word fort (strong), and the context très fort (very strong), synonymous expressions such as fort comme un turc, comme un boeuf, comme un chêne (strong as an ox/horse/oak). Similarly, under the headword vue (sight), and the context à première vue (at first sight), you will find synonym expressions such as au premier abord and au premier coup d'oeil; and in the sense of an approximation, you will find à peu près (about), approximativement (approximately), à vue de nez [fam.] (roughly), and en gros [fam] (more or less). Thus, the semantic space that is explored for each of the head words is both vast and clearly mapped, which both enhances precision and widens the range of possibilities for translators.

At the end of the day
Le Robert’s Dictionnaire des Synonymes, des Nuances et Contraires is an exceptionally well designed dictionary of French synonyms. Beyond simple listings and reliance on user/reader intuition for sorting among possibilities of closely-related meanings, this is a dictionary that highlights Nuances, marks and clearly explains the differences among similarities. For translators with special concerns for exact meanings and the right words, both the explanations found in the Nuances and the information marking differences, contained in this dictionary, are invaluable. Even though you may already have multiple sources of synonyms and antonyms listings for French, none will supply such rigorous indexing and explanations of differences, big and subtle, that chart the territory of similar or overlapping semantic fields. This tool will not only supply you with the words and phases you need to avoid repetitions, to target meanings more precisely, or to enliven and enrich your texts, it will also help you to choose them. This is a tool to treasure. Get it and enjoy!