Madeline Kripke, Doyenne of Dictionaries, Is Dead at 76

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This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Madeline Kripke, who kept one of the world’s largest private collection of dictionaries, much of it crammed into her Greenwich Village apartment, could be defined this way: liberal [adj., as in giving unstintingly], compleat [adj., meaning having all the requisite skills] and sui generis [adj., in a class by itself].

Beginning with the Webster’s Collegiate that her parents gave her in the fifth grade, she accumulated an estimated 20,000 volumes as diverse as a Latin dictionary printed in 1502, Jonathan Swift’s 1722 booklet titled “The Benefits of Farting Explained,” and the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s 1980 guide to pickpocket slang.

Ms. Kripke (pronounced KRIP-key) died on April 25 in Manhattan at 76. Her brother, Saul Kripke, a noted philosopher and professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center, said the cause was the coronavirus and complications of pneumonia.

One question that none of Ms. Kripke’s reference books answers is what will happen to her collection. After avoiding eviction in the mid-1990s by agreeing to remove the volumes stacked in the hallway, she had hoped to transfer the whole enchilada [slang for the entirety] from her apartment and three warehouses to a university or, if she had her druthers [n., preference], to install it in her own dictionary library, which she never got to build.

“Unfortunately, it appears that no clear plan existed for her collection,” her brother, her only immediate survivor, said in a phone interview. “We are now in touch with some of her expert friends for advice.”

Those friends are legion [adj., multitudinous], thanks to Ms. Kripke’s generosity and virtuosity as a resource on etymology [n., the derivation of words], pronunciation and usage and especially every variety of vulgarity and slang, from the indigenous argot of Argentina to the patois of vaudeville, the London underworld, cowboys, hipsters and generations of teenagers.

But Ms. Kripke was not an indiscriminate amasser, said Ammon Shea, the author of “Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages” (2008). “Madeline,” he said, “built a cathedral of the English lexicographic tradition, tens of thousands of carefully chosen items.”

Madeline Faith Kripke was born on Sept. 9, 1943, in New London, Conn., where her father, Rabbi Myer S. Kripke, headed a Conservative Jewish congregation. Her mother, Dorothy (Karp) Kripke, was an author of children’s religious books.

Madeline grew up in Omaha, where her father was the rabbi of Beth El Synagogue and where her parents were friends of the investor Warren Buffett (and beneficiaries of his financial advice).

The Webster’s Collegiate she received from her parents, she told Daniel Krieger for a profile about her on the website Narratively, “unlocked the world for me because I could read at any vocabulary level I wanted.” Which she did, conscientiously documenting the words she didn’t understand.

“I realized that dictionaries were each infinitely explorable,” she told Mr. Krieger, “so they opened me to new possibilities in a mix of serendipity, discovery and revelation.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree in English from Barnard College, she remained in New York in the 1960s, living as a cross between a beatnik and a hippie, she said, then working as a welfare case worker, a teacher, and a copy editor and proofreader — skills she would apply to her collecting.

She was self-taught as a lexicographer. “She approached her collection and study with the same scholarship and discipline with which her father approached religion, said Tom Dalzell, a slang expert, “and with which her brother approaches modal logic, philosophy of language, metaphysics, epistemology and recursion theory.”

Jesse Sheidlower, a former editor at the “Oxford English Dictionary,” said of Ms. Kripke, “She didn’t just accumulate material; she read it all, and could tell you the editor’s personality based on the changes made across varying editions of a work.”

While she later revived her childhood practice of recording unfamiliar words in a notebook, Ms. Kripke never exploited her command of language in poetry or prose, except for the occasional verse, like her ode to Icarus, which began, “He must have been high when he first tried to fly.”

The comprehensiveness of her collection amazed many in the lexicographic world.

Simon Winchester, the author of “The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary” (2003), said in an email: “I would challenge her to find this volume of Czech loanwords or that collection of Greenland slang or Common Terms in Astrophysics — and she’d always say, ‘Yes, I’m sure I have it somewhere,’ and would dive in like a truffle hound and come up for air holding the volume in triumph, and I would retire, always defeated.”

Ms. Kripke’s linguistic-related ephemera included an instruction manual for dictionary salesmen and a pivotal letter from George Merriam to his brother Charles. The letter captured “the moment when the brothers hatch a plan for getting the rights to Noah Webster’s dictionary — the Big Bang moment that leads directly to the creation of Merriam-Webster dictionaries,” said John Morse, a former president and publisher of Merriam-Webster.

About one-fifth of Ms. Kripke’s collection represents what Mr. Winchester described in The New York Review of Books in 2012 as “the very living and breathing edge of the English language: the ragged and ill-defined omnium gatherum of informal, witty, clever, newborn, and usually impermanent words that constitute what for the past two centuries has been known as slang.”

Armed with a flashlight, she would hunt down “A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue” from 1785; or “The Pocket Dictionary of Prison Slanguage” (1941), by Clinton T. Duffy, a former warden of San Quentin; or the pornographic comic books known as Tijuana bibles.

Ms. Kripke sold books, but she acquired even more, with surpassing dedication. As a young collector, she once coveted a 1694 edition of “The Ladies Dictionary,” which she had found in a London shop at a time when she had only enough money for a planned train trip to France to meet a friend in Nice.

She bought the book and hitchhiked to Nice instead.


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