María Moliner: Darned Socks and Wrote Dictionaries

But the figure who stands out in the period was María Moliner (1900–1981). A librarian under the  Second Republic, Moliner had established a  groundbreaking network of rural libraries in Spain in the 1930s, part of the Second Republic’s short  but intense period of educational reform. At the  time, only four million of the twenty-three million Spaniards had access to books and newspapers. By 1934, she had already opened 5,000 libraries, and had plans for 5,500 more in primary schools and small towns.

Unlike other left-wing intellectuals, María Moliner, a mother of four, did not run away from Franco. She and her family suffered for the decision. Her husband, a professor of physics and left-wing  activist, was suspended from his job for three  years. Moliner stayed on the government’s payroll but was demoted eighteen ranks. By 1946, she was  working way below her abilities, as head librarian at the Higher Technical School of Industrial Engineers.

The idea to write a dictionary was born in 1952, when Moliner’s son, who was living in Paris, sent her a copy of The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Current English. Conscious of the decline of the Real Academia’s dictionary under Franco, Moliner began taking notes to write a small Spanish dictionary similar to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary. She understood the methodology. Thirty years earlier, while she was studying at the University of Zaragoza, Moliner had been part of a team working  on a dictionary of Aragonese. She thought she  could write it in two years. 

In 1966, after fifteen years of solitary work, Moliner finally published her landmark Diccionario de Uso del Español (Dictionary of Spanish Usage). It was an immediate success: since 1967, it has sold almost two hundred thousand copies. Gabriel García Márquez called it “the most complete, useful,  diligent and entertaining dictionary of the Castilian  language.”  Moliner based her corpus on the Academia’s  dictionary, augmented with what she gleaned from newspapers. The Academia had accepted words such as record, test, and film but it ignored technical  terms that were becoming common, including  cibernética, entropía (entropy), reactor, and transistor. Striving to be clear and up-to-date, Moliner included foreign words, colloquialisms, slang, and  acronyms that were part of common usage. Moliner also refused to treat ch and ll as separate letters (the Academia followed her example in  1994). 

When Moliner died in 1981, Gabriel García Márquez wrote her obituary. He said her dictionary was “twice as big as the Academia’s and, in my  opinion, twice as good.” Its only drawback, he declared, was the absence of profanities, “the words Spaniards have used the most since time immemorial.” In 1972, the great philologists Rafael Lapesa and Dámaso Alonso nominated Moliner for membership in the Real Academia and it was widely believed she would become Spain’s first female academician. The Academia instead chose the  philologist Emilio Alarcos Llorach, even though his  best work (Gramática de la lengua española) was  still twenty-two years in the making. Moliner’s biog-  rapher, Inmaculada de la Fuente, wrote, “Her work questioned the dictionary of the Real Academia. She was admired, but not valued.” 

On learning that her candidacy was rejected, María Moliner commented ironically, “What could I have said? I spent my life darning socks.” 

The Story of Spanish by Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow