The Gifted in Pursuit of the Valued
Madeline Kripke: the gifted in pursuit of the valued
By Bruce McKinney
Two stops from Times Square and a ten minute walk toward the Hudson River brings me to a lovely building to meet Madeline Kripke, an extraordinary woman who lives among her books, manuscripts and ephemera in a frenzied embrace with words and their history. Emotionally charged words in particular have pride of place.
Getting through the front door is an undertaking for open space long ago lost its argument with material and conventional order. Today the printed word in many forms occupies all the expected spaces such as shelves and also every table top and counter. The aisles, such as there are, feel like paths through a rain forest - the accumulation on both sides relentlessly encroaching on the ever-imperiled lanes. The material is not of the ground cover variety either but rather more like pyrocanthus and jonquil. Keeping the paths clear is a joyous job for what competes for space is a burgeoning collection of what was, until a few years ago, difficult to obtain -- an accumulation of the interesting and obscure in the field of historical lexicography: the history of the writing, editing, or compiling of dictionaries and the relevant principles and procedures involved. This is a tornado in a field that is at once obscure and enlightening.
This is the life and obsession of an American original. Madeline is building a collection that has the makings of that rare prize -- the combination of intelligence, timing and money -- bound together by an obsessive commitment to completeness. The timing of the quest is rare: that best moment to drink the Bordeaux.
Now on the early slopes of 60, Madeline some years ago saw the emerging internet opportunity to unearth the detritus that together is the history of words. The opportunity was stunning as the material was often obscure, its significance frequently unappreciated. On the net it was emerging as the gentle pitter-pitter-patter of a summer rain; no thunder and lightening heralding its arrival. Rather it came on the feet of angels, lighter than air, detectible to the aware but understood by very few, the every day volume uncertain but the opportunity extraordinary. The result today is a lovely apartment bursting at the seams, floor to ceiling, wall to wall, with the unknown and the uncommon, cheek by jowl with material yet to be opened, stacked in boxes and commanded to sections where fellow members of the corps are, in many cases, parading together for the first time. This is what the collecting of books, manuscripts and ephemera is all about: the gifted in pursuit of the valued.
Thus dictionaries and their related manuscripts and ephemera once assigned to their company are partitioned by category such as army, navy, air force, aviation, trucker, gambler, feminist, Wall Street, cowboy, gay, French, black, and Yiddish to mention only some of the categories of specialized language and subject Madeline has acquired. There are of course others such as dictionaries of various American Indian languages, an entire category of the slang language of Argentina as well as a very large range of the language of crime. If it is a dictionary or its cousin, the gathering of defined words in less formal settings such as in pamphlets, newspapers and magazines, she is interested.
The Gifted in Pursuit of the Valued
Greenwich Village, 1967
If you think of language as fixed this collection is the proof that it is not. Words have their day, are born, live and frequently die. Those that survive often are so changed as to be unrecognizable across the centuries. How they have changed and why they have changed are questions for forensic historians to meddle into submission. It is Madeline's ambition to provide an extraordinary collection for scholars and the simply interested to see in the history of dictionaries and the words and definitions they contain something to illuminate the past, present and future. So Madeline is busy. In this transitional moment the material flows freely into the market from a thousand places. How long this lasts no one really knows. This is certainly a rare moment and Madeline, a diminutive woman with the mind of an Aries, is framing the subject in an entirely new way.
One does not go so deeply and not go deeper yet and so the biographies of lexicographers have several shelves and etymology a section. There is even an early example of a manual of instruction for salesmen of a dictionary. After all, someone had to sell the books. There is a section of photographs and photographic calling cards of lexicographers as well.
The collection gives the misimpression of completeness for there are about 20,000 items already gathered from the internet, auctions, dealer catalogues and offerings. Actually it is a work in progress for every day that mail and packages can be delivered often 3 or 4 are. Hence the accumulation of the arriving; the endless unwrapping, the momentary savoring and the inevitable return to the business of unearthing the next interesting item.
From these and other opportunities as they present themselves Madeline continues to acquire, even as she every day creates a scholarly database that may in time carry her name, reputation and steadfast efforts on to generations yet unborn that may find in the history of dictionaries, through her extensive records, a clearer understanding of words and their complex relationship to time. It is her goal that someday the collection will be fully accessible on the net under the administration of an institution to which she gifts what a modern slang dictionary might call the whole enchilada. They will act as gatekeeper and guardian to this history of language that at once can and should be both an extraordinary collection and a magnet that attracts additional material, as it emerges, to join the collection's electronic shelves; a collection that illuminates and snowballs.
If today's goal is a few more items that are, on a beautiful August day in 2007 in Greenwich Village, simply so many fresh recruits for the first time meeting their regimental partners, unaware that the cool, affable and deeply determined woman who scurries from project to appointment and back is their highly disciplined taskmaster, they will soon enough understand she intends to make them an army that will carry the love of lexicography and its history in many forms deep into the centuries ahead.
Human beings are complex and their intellectual perspectives personal. We live in an era that celebrates the current moment at the expense of historical perspective. Some few see, in the history of dictionaries and the shifting definitions of words, the Geiger counter clicks of changing attitude that reflect much that we too routinely deny. In dictionaries then we can see more than simply words: we can see ourselves.
So this woman who has never had a child, in her commitment to sharing, is determined to make a contribution from which we can all learn. In time her material will become broadly searchable on line, thereby crossing the boundary that divides the great collections from the great resources. So even today, as she continues to acquire material, she is creating the catalogue that will frame this resource, an effort that will bind the past and present to the future.
The Gifted in Pursuit of the Valued
The Springfield Musket joke dictionary
Reference books today do not discuss Madeline but in time I think they will. She sees the world in a unique way.
I asked Madeline for her perspective on a few items she values. They aren't necessarily valuable but they are all, in some way, important to her.
Listen to the Interview
Selecting a few items from my library...
Selecting a few items from my library that interest me specially is difficult; I must be almost arbitrary in choosing the items. So I'll just begin--with the two books that are cornerstones of the collection.
The first is Captain Francis Grose's A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, London 1796, the third edition. I was young, not so long out of college, and I was looking for any original edition of the octavo book (1785, 1788, or 1796). I came across my first copy, a small folio bound in full black- and gilt-ruled brown morocco, with raised bands, extra-illustrated and inlaid. The volume contains many manuscript additions to the text and has a wealth of visual material (including newspaper clippings!) showing the contemporary culture in full bloom. This volume was put together and bound in the late Victorian era, by a person whose identity still remains a mystery to me. The Classical Dictionary was the most prominent dictionary of English slang to date, influential for decades to come, into the latter half of the 1800s.
The other cornerstone book is a thin small octavo published in wrappers in 1935, Allen Walker Read's Lexical Evidence from Folk Epigraphy in Western North America: A Glossarial Study of the Low Element in the English Vocabulary. Read gave the work a precise but academic-sounding title to help get the book past the censors. No one in America or Germany agreed to publish the book, but Read found a printer at the Obelisk Press in Paris a year after the press had published Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer. The printer (here named Lecram-Servant) produced a small edition of 75 copies, none for sale, and each was signed, numbered, and presented by Read to a colleague.
I'm proud to have the author's own copy, and others. To make it plain: the book was an alphabetical study of the "bad" words found in graffiti on the walls of men's rooms in national parks. This legendary book has distinct appeals, to the very scholarly and the very bawdy. The work is available in reprint under the title Classical American Graffiti, from Maledicta Press. I was fortunate to know Allen Walker Read personally, a distinguished scholar who was a gentleman of the "old school." He was a mentor to me for many years, as he was to many lexicographers.
Some other items are noted more briefly: There is a slender 8vo.Yiddish-Russian dictionary by S. Lifshits published in Zitomir, Ukraine, in 1876, this copy from the library of the well-known Yiddishist Uriel Weinreich, bearing both his stamp and his signature in Yiddish. The book is a rebinding in cloth-backed paper over boards, retaining the original printed blue wrappers.
Another is a 16mo. pamphlet titled Eddie Ketcham's Primer, in printed blue wrappers written and published by George Crowell Ketchum in Malden, Massachusetts, in 1875. The preface states: "To/ my little brother/ four years old./ Now you can say your letters and can spell Ox and Cat and Dog and Hen, I will make you a little book, with pictures in it, and print it all nice to please/ you. Be a good boy and love Papa/ and Mama, and/ Your Brother,/ George." Not recorded in OCLC, the pamphlet must have been published in an edition of only a very few copies.
The Gifted in Pursuit of the Valued
A spanish colloquial phrase book
Next is a group of books that strike me as odd in some fashion. Three have odd titles: English Syntitholgy, by James Brown, 12mo., Boston and Philadelphia 1842; The Kirografik Teecher, by John Brown Smith, 8vo., Amherst 1878; Epeögraphy, by Joseph B. Manning, Boston 1829. Then there are books with odd contents, an example of which is James Ruggles' A Universal Language, Cincinnati 1829. Its attempt to make an artificial language "formed on philosophical and analogical principles" yields a welter of jarring print that is rough going to say the least. And an odd but charming imprint belongs to Francis Butler's The Spanish Teacher, 16mo., published in New York in 1849 by the Havana Segar Mart, 205 Water-Street.
There are many books by and about the venerable (but in my opinion, not so beloved) Noah Webster. One example is a four-page folio announcement, which was folded and mailed to a publisher in January 1830, entitled Series of books for systematic instruction in the English language. By Noah Webster. The first page promotes four of Webster's books and bears the printed signatures of supporting dignitaries. The second page is wholly blank, and the third has a full-page manuscript letter by Webster asking the publisher to return the sheet with approbations to be written on the blank sheet. The fourth page bears the franking marks. This ephemeral piece shows Noah Webster to be the famously aggressive self-promoter he was all along.
Another piece, a pamphlet published in Albany in 1851 (a few years after Webster's death) shows still more of Websterian gumption. This New York State government document, by James W. Beekman, titled Report of minority of committee on literature in reference to the purchase of school districts of Webster's Dictionary, contains a letter by Washington Irving. In the letter Irving expresses his anger after tactfully giving a negative reply to a solicitation from Webster, only to find his few positive phrases (leaving out his refusal to endorse the work) appear in the promotional literature for Webster's Quarto Dictionary.
The quarto February 1928 issue (Vol. XIII, No. 143) of The Periodical, published both at Oxford and at New York (the American edition), celebrates the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary, 1884-1928. The issue contains photographic portraits of the editors and those who were involved in the dictionary's publication and provides a historical overview, in some detail, of how the work was compiled. A small brochure, a 16mo., also published in 1928, gives the text of the speech by Stanley Baldwin at the dinner celebrating the completion of the dictionary.
In the field of Americana, there is the series of papers, initially appearing under the pseudonymous byline "The Druid," in the Pennsylvania Journal and the Weekly Advertiser, Philadelphia 1781. (Alas, this issue is not in my library!) The series was republished in the Philadelphia 1801 collected works of Jonathan Witherspoon, signer of the Declaration of Independence and president of Princeton University. In "The Druid" No. V, Witherspoon coins a new term, "Americanisms," and proposes several criteria for inclusion in this class of words.
Later, in 1815, John Pickering's A Vocabulary or Collection of Words and Phrases Which are Supposed to be Peculiar to the United States of America first appeared in the Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. III. This essay in dictionary form was republished a year later in 1816 as an expanded book of the same title. Pickering leaned toward seeing American English as somewhat barbaric and inferior to the language spoken and written in England. One of my copies of his book bears a presentation by Lewis Tappan, a noted merchant and abolitionist of Northampton, Massachusetts, and Brooklyn, New York, to his brother Benjamin, a Steubenville, Ohio, legislator, jurist, and anti-slavery leader. The rear pastedown contains a list in ink headed "my contribs" with corresponding page numbers. On each of the listed pages there is an inked check mark and a vertical marginal line noting a passage that cites "a correspondent" or "an obliging correspondent." This copy, thus, identifies one of Pickering's formerly unknown sources.
Rounding off this category, there is the first systematic bibliography of American English, published in Albany in 1883 in The Transactions of the Albany Institute, Vol. X. The author, Gilbert M. Tucker, concludes his essay entitled "American English" with a useful though brief (three pages only) discriminated list of relevant publications.
The Gifted in Pursuit of the Valued
Evidence in the dictionary wars
A few varied titles deserve brief mention.
"Levi's Round-Up of Western Lingo" is a colorful promotional leaflet for Levi Strauss and Co. Undated (roughly 1940-1960) the text is a glossary of cowboy terms written by Ramon Adams. The advertisement consists of a single sheet folded to make 12 small pages. The cover panel shows two clean-cut, smiling cowboys, one sitting on a fence and the other leaning against it, both wearing Levi's. On the foot of the rear panel there is a space for printing the name and location of a particular store where the jeans can be bought.
Next is a book by L. M. Griffiths entitled Medical Philology. A 12mo., published by J. W. Arrowsmith in Bristol in 1905, it contains excerpts from the Bristol Medico-Chirurgical Journal, Part I (A-El) only. These passages discuss medical words found in the landmark English dictionaries of the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries, with ample citations and critical commentary. The book gives textured treatment to each of these words, and much to savor.
The first two issues of a newspaper called The Springfield Musket, dated November 26 and December 21, 1864, respectively, came from Springfield, Massachusetts, with an editorial board of four women. The paper was "published at the fair for the soldiers' rest." Each issue contains two columns comprising half of a jocular glossary, and each entry is illustrated by a droll pictorial cut. One can well imagine soldiers chuckling as they read the paper.
A Dictionarie in English and Latine for Children, and Yonge Beginners, by John Withals, was first published in 1553 and went through numerous editions. On hand is a late edition of 1602, augmented by William Clerk. It has an elaborately decorative title page and a vivid text, with the English entries printed in black type. One leaf, possibly the last or possibly a frontispiece, has long ago been affixed to the rear pastedown. At the foot is the legend "Thomas Purfoote," the name of the printer, under a woodcut of a handsomely coiffed well-dressed woman using a sword to stab herself beneath the breast. Since Thomas Purfoote had his shop in St. Paul's churchyard "at the signe of the Lucrece," it can easily be assumed that the woodcut is a portrait of Lucretia.
A series of pamphlets and magazine articles—some few dozen—many of them in my library--appeared, and raged, in the 1830s through the 1860s, arguing back and forth the case for the dictionaries of Noah Webster or those of his rival Joseph Worcester. The sometimes vitriolic writings are known popularly as "The War of the Dictionaries." The pamphlets bore titles such as: "A Gross Literary Fraud Exposed; Relating to the Publication of Worcester's Dictionary in London" (a Merriam piece); "A Summary Summing of the Charges, with Their Refutations, in Attacks Upon Noah Webster, LL.D." (another Merriam piece); and "The Critic Criticised, and Worcester Vindicated; Constituting a Review of an Article in the 'Congregationalist'" (Swan, Brewster, and Tilleston, the publishers of Worcester).
The Gifted in Pursuit of the Valued
Webster, backed by advertising money from the Merriams (the very successful publishers of editions of the Bible), was a brash man whose dictionaries were somewhat inferior to those of Worcester; but Webster prevailed. The dictionaries of Worcester, more scholarly and written by a more genteel man, were less well funded and slowly faded from prominence.
Another Websterian book is the Salesman's Manual for Use in the Sale of Webster's New International Dictionary with Reference History of the World, an octavo manual written by E. H. Norton, Manager of the Subscription Department, and published by G. & C. Merriam in 1916. Each of the manuals was numbered and (one can assume) logged. Each copy was supposed to have been returned when a salesman no longer had ties with the company. There are thorough chapters on selling techniques to be used, elaborating methods of persuasion and calling attention to notable features of the book to be stressed when trying to win over to a potential buyer. Facing page 1 is a photograph of "A Group of New International Dictionary Salesmen" at a dinner together.
Le Dictionnaire des Halles is a vellum-bound 12mo. written by a man named Artaud in "Bruxelles" [i.e., Paris] in 1696. It attempts to debunk the reputation of the French Academy's dictionary for purity, refinement, and high-mindedness by collecting homely folk proverbs excerpted from the celebrated work which are decidedly not pure and genteel. Examples are: "On dit d'un homme extrèmmement glorieux, qu'il est glorieux comme un pet" and "Cette homme a chié dans ma malle: pour dire, il a fait á moy, je ne me fieray plus á luy." As Artaud's preface points out, the French Academy fails to exclude indelicate language: both proverbs are cited in the Academy's work twice, each in two separate entries.
Another European work is a 1779 late edition, in 8vo., of a well-known book written in the idiom of Spanish thieves and containing a dictionary of their language. It is Romances de Germanía ...con el Vocabulario, which first appeared in 1609. The author's popular name, Juan Hidalgo, is the pseudonym of one Cristóbal de Chaves.
Another European production on thieves' language is the Viennese Wörterbuch der Diebs- , Gauner- , oder Kochmersprache.... Appearing in 1854, this slender quarto was from a division of their police department, the Central-Evidenz-Bureau.
An American book, by George W. Matsell, the first municipal chief of police of New York City, written to familiarize his men with criminal slang, is the Vocabulum; or, the Rogue's Lexicon, which appeared in 12mo. in 1859. Among the few copies in this collection are two signed by Matsell, one of them presented to General Abram Duryee, who became police commissioner in 1875.
Last in this brief survey are two very different books. The first, Sling Lingo, written by Elizabeth Woodward and undated is a colorful, charming rendition of the language we would today call that of teenage girls. Then, these girls were called "sub-debs," and this is their lingo, ca. 1940s. The book is an illustrated quarto published by the Ladies Home Journal--in hopes that the sub-debs would buy sub-deb clothing from department stores.
A much less frivolous work ends the list. It is a 1758 12mo. entitled Table Alphabetique des Dictionnaires. The author's name does not appear on the title page, but the book was written by the distinguished and celebrated French bibliographer Jacques Bernard Durey de Noinville. It is the earliest printed bibliography of dictionaries known to me. The author's lovely heraldic bookplate is affixed to the front pastedown, and the half-title bears his presentation to Canon John Belin "Ex dono authoris."