February 4, 2014

Madeline Kripke’s incredible dictionary collection


Some dictionaries. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Some dictionaries. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In a small loft on Perry Street in the West Village lives Madeline Kripke and her extraordinary 20,000-volume dictionary collection. Kripke’s collection is world-class: Jesse Sheidlower, Editor at Large of the Oxford English Dictionary, has described it as “a better library than the Library of Congress.”

Kripke’s interest in dictionaries began very early on, during her childhood in Omaha, Nebraska. As she describes it in a profile piece, “The Dame of Dictionaries,” by Daniel Krieger for Narratively, it all started with a Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, which she received in fifth grade. “It unlocked the world for me because I could read at any vocabulary level I wanted,” she says and she took full advantage of it, using the dictionary to read books like Nabokov’s Pnin and to systematically teach herself new vocabulary words. Eventually, she came to New York for college in the ‘60s, fell for the city in its “tune in, turn on, drop out” days, and worked for many years as a copyeditor and proofreader.

She accumulated reference books to do the editing work, but her interest in them soon outstripped pure utility and she began to collect and educate herself about the history of dictionaries. In time, she turned her knowledge to use as a dealer, which she has only recently semi-retired from.

Along the way, she built up a collection that now occupies every shelf, floor, bed, and other flat space of her apartment, along with three storage facilities. “It’s no way to live,” she admits, but on the other hand, it means that she’s surrounded by such gems as A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) and The Pocket Dictionary of Prison Slanguage (1941), compiled by the warden at San Quentin Prison.

Because Kripke’s particular love is books about slang, and as such, she has dictionaries that, as Simon Winchester wrote of her collection in the New York Review of Books, “represent 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.”

There are books about the slang used by under- and upper worlds of all kinds: musicians, prostitutes, jailbirds, itinerants, teenagers, soldiers, cowboys, truck drivers, hippies and more.

“It’s the most fun of any part of language,” says Kripke, explaining her love of slang. “It’s also in your face or it’s meant to sneak around your face, so you can’t understand.”

Notable titles in her collection include the oldest book she owns, the Calepino or Dictionarium, a Latin dictionary from 1502 that she calls “a foundation stone in the history of dictionaries,” the only known copy of Larks of London (1840), a dictionary of London underworld slang, and Allen Walker Read’s Lexical Evidence from Folk Epigraphy in Western Northern America: a Glossarial Study of the Low Element in the English Vocabulary (1935), which is Read’s very scholarly compilation and analysis of all the dirty words he ran across in men’s bathrooms. She also has one of the world’s biggest collections of Tijuana bibles, the pornographic underground comics popular in the Great Depression.

But, of course, since she’s now in  her late sixties, she’s starting to face the ultimate dilemma for all collectors: what happens when I’m no longer around? Kripke’s dream is to keep it all together:

“If I magically had my druthers,” she says, “I could just buy a building and declare it the Dictionary Library or the Lexicography Museum.”


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.