A Shout Out—and Farewell—to Madeline Kripke, the “Doyenne* of Dictionaries”

I didn’t find out about Madeline Kripke until May 2, when my friend Mike emailed me a link to the story about her that ran in the New York Times

Wait … what? You haven’t heard of Madeline Kripke, either? It’s not surprising. It seems she kept a rather low profile. 

Ms. Kripke grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, where her father was a rabbi and where her parents were friends of the investor Warren Buffett (and, according to the article, beneficiaries of his financial advice). 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.” Later, she worked as a welfare case worker, a teacher, and a copy editor and  proofreader. These occupations, however, had little to do with her calling.

Back when she was in the fifth grade, her parents gave her a copy of the Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. The gift “unlocked the world for her,” as she told the website Narratively. Dictionaries became her passion and, beginning with the Webster’s Collegiate, she accumulated an estimated 20,000 volumes over the course of her life. It was “one of the world’s largest private collections of dictionaries” and much of it was crammed into her Greenwich Village apartment.

As the article is careful to point out, Ms. Kripke was not an “indiscriminate amasser” of references. Rather, she “built a cathedral of the English lexicographic tradition, tens of thousands of carefully chosen items.” Among them were “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.

The comprehensiveness of her collection amazed many in the lexicographic world and, despite being self-taught, she was known for “approach[ing] her collection and study with the same scholarship and discipline with which her father approached religion.”

Ms. Kripke died on April 25 in Manhattan at 76 due to the coronavirus and complications of pneumonia. According to the article, she didn’t have a plan for her collection in the event of her death (her brother and some of her lexicography-expert friends are working on it). The word on the street was that Kripke hoped to transfer the collection to a university or, if she had her way, put it all in her own dictionary library, but she never got to build it. 

I wanted to end this issue of Alternate Incite with a remembrance of Ms. Kripke for two reasons. First, as I’ve already mentioned, I’m a dictionary collector myself, so I share her mania (although clearly not to the same degree). Moreover, I too have thought about opening a dictionary library and/or museum. (Perhaps I should get in contact with her brother ….)

The second and more important reason is that Ms. Kripke is a shining example of what Alternate Incite is all about: heeding the call—that impulse!—to create something significant and worthwhile, and to see it through to the end. Clearly, amassing a collection of 20,000 anything takes time, money, and commitment. It also takes the guts to do something a little unorthodox and “out there,” regardless of the slings and arrows the critics will surely throw your way (and if you see of the photo of her apartment that ran in the Times, you know there were some critics). It might also take a willingness to be inconvenienced, to suffer, for that which is bigger than yourself. This sounds dark, and maybe even depressing, but it’s not. If you’re truly heeding the call, it is, as I’m sure Ms. Kripke would report, a (mostly) joyous and pleasurable experience despite the discomfort. 

* Doyenne (n.) The eldest or senior female member of a group.

PS) This piece first appeared in issue #1 of Alternative Incite. If you’d like a copy, visit the “Publications” page.

Published by

Joe3

Founder of the College Park Community and Butter Lamb Reference Libraries

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