Pocket worthyStories to fuel your mind

The Dame of Dictionaries

A 2013 visit with Madeline Kripke, who turned her passion for words into one of the world’s preeminent dictionary collections, filling her West Village home to the bursting point with some 20,000 titles.


Read when you’ve got time to spare.


Photos by Emon Hassan.

“This is my favorite wall,” Madeline Kripke says as she shines a flashlight at the slang section of her dictionary collection. On the glass-enclosed shelves sit numerous lingo dictionaries that capture the speech of cowboys, flappers, mariners, gamblers, truck drivers, hippies, homosexuals, jive talkers, soldiers, circus workers, hobos, fliers, Valley Girls, thieves, con men and more.

Kripke has dictionaries that–as a fan of them myself–I’d never imagined existed, ranging from a four-century-old tome that looks like some ancient book of spells to miniature dictionaries small as postage stamps kept in lockets that double as magnifying glasses.

“I conceive of each of these books as a sparkling jewel,” she says while giving a tour.

Giving a tour of her dictionary collection, Madeline Kripke illuminates her “slang wall.”

About 20,000 books reside in Kripke’s two-bedroom loft on Perry Street in the West Village–mostly dictionaries and books about dictionaries and language. When she moved in thirteen years ago, her collection, by some accounts among the foremost in the world, was a little more than half its current size.

Stacks of books and boxes line the entry corridor that leads to the main room, filled with jam-packed, custom-designed bookshelves. In front of them, and just about everywhere, overflow books and boxes are stacked up methodically. In a smaller side room, whose glass pane door has postcard-size portraits of lexicographers taped to it, books, boxes and papers take up most of the floor space, with a narrow path carved through the center. Hundreds more books are in the bedroom.

“Any book that I want to have near me that’s new goes into in the bedroom first,” she says. These titles command a sizable share of real estate on her queen-size bed. “There’s a little strip of vacant land for me to sleep on. It’s no way to live, but until I part with some of the books or store some away from the apartment, that’s it for now.”

Despite feeling a bit constricted, she confesses to being “fairly content” with the setup. Sitting amid her treasures, she hearkens back to how it all started. Soft-spoken and with a gentle demeanor, she chooses her words with great care and precision.

Kripke, who is sixty-nine, grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, the daughter of a Conservative rabbi. As a child, she was solitary, and often retreated into her room where she would lose herself in books rather than play with her brother, who was always absorbed in thought (and later became a philosopher).

“I read and read and read and read and read,” she says. In fifth grade, her parents gave her a Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and that changed everything. “It unlocked the world for me because I could read at any vocabulary level I wanted,” she says, and went on to negotiate more sophisticated titles, like Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin, Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception and The Frogs by Aristophanes. She was diligent about learning words, and would enter all the new ones she came across daily in a notebook. Then she would review them, trying to commit them to memory. The next day, she would add ten or fifteen more, review the words from the prior day, and at the end of each week review the entire week. She carried on this routine for years.

A Noah Webster cigar box.

In 1961, she moved to New York City to study English at Barnard. Her mother thought it a sensible choice due to its proximity to the Jewish Theological Seminary, which strategically positioned her to continue religious studies and meet a pool of potential mates. What her mother didn’t account for was the blossoming counterculture movement, which her daughter found far more compelling.

Early on, she was quite studious, as she had been in high school, and in her freshman year took a graduate course at Columbia in Anglo-Saxon, foreshadowing her language interest to come. But far from the confines of Omaha, she eventually let loose and embraced a liberated lifestyle she summed up as in tune with the exuberant times.

When she graduated, she couldn’t imagine living anywhere but New York. “It’s where a lot was happening,” she says. “1965 was tune in, turn on, drop out and it was all going on here.” She describes her twenty-two-year-old self as a cross between a beatnik and hippie, though more the latter, wearing her hair long but not going in for paisley, tie-dye or love beads.

After stints as a welfare case worker and teacher and a flirtation with the idea of a career in computers, she pivoted and took a job as an editor with a publisher (and for years afterwards did copyediting and proofreading for a variety of magazines and publishers). This set her life on a new track, leading her toward the rarefied world of dictionaries and the people and things revolving in their orbit.

At first, the dictionaries she kept on hand for work were simply tools of the trade that took up a few shelves. But a funny thing happened–she became fascinated with these repositories of words and started to fall in love with them.

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

Madeline Kripke reading one of her miniature dictionaries with a magnifying glass that doubles as a locket.

She read everything about them she could get her hands on, often browsing through bookshops, hungry for more knowledge. From scrutinizing bibliographies, she got a sense of the important books she needed.

One of her hunting grounds was the Reference Book Center, now long gone, on the seventh floor of the Flatiron Building. There she discovered that dictionaries comprised a whole field. Over the next few years, continuing with copyediting, she also worked at several bookstores–including Parnassus Bookshop on 89th and Broadway–always keeping up the hunt and meanwhile developing a keen eye for books of special value.

Once, during a trip to London in those early days, she came across a tattered copy of The Ladies Dictionary at a bookshop. Printed in 1694 in Gothic script, it was the first dictionary that dealt solely with women’s concerns, she explains, with rules about dancing (it’s okay, but not wantonly) and clothing (low-cut gowns are fine, but not in church) as well as an essay on hair.

“I was so charmed when I opened the book and saw how to treat split ends,” she says. “I knew I had to have that book.” But she only had enough money for train fare to get to Nice, France, where she was visiting a friend before flying back to New York. Faced with this dilemma, she went ahead and blew her last penny on the book and hitchhiked to Nice. “That’s really dedication to a book,” she says.

Eventually, she figured out this dedication would serve her well as a dealer. “I decided I might as well take the special knowledge that I have and make some monetary use out of it,” she says, and got her seller’s license in 1976. Over the next few decades, her knowledge and collection grew exponentially.

With short silver hair and rimless glasses sometimes resting midway down the bridge of her nose, Kripke looks like a scholar, which she is despite no formal dictionary schooling. Wearing a floral print blouse, black slacks and Adidas sneakers, she shows off some of the prizes of her collection, starting with books about slang, her greatest area of interest, which make up twenty percent of it. Two books in particular made her “more crazed” early on, she says.

Sitting in a pink armchair, she leans over and removes a large, heavy book from a book cradle, handling it like a precious artifact. A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, written by Captain Francis Grose, was one of the first major slang dictionaries in England, published in 1785. With an extra illustrated and inlaid edition in her lap, one of multiple copies she owns, Kripke opens it up to a curious full-page picture of a woman in a forest who had fallen onto her back with a man looking up her dress, illustrating the term to fall arsy varsey (falling head over heels). She greatly appreciates humor in dictionaries, not to mention the absurd. (One book whose title quickly caught my eye was Free Drinks for Ladies with Nuts.)

Another that had a big impact on her is Lexical Evidence from Folk Epigraphy in Western North America: a Glossarial Study of the Low Element in the English Vocabulary. One of her great early acquisitions, it was written by Allen Walker Read, a Columbia professor and dictionary authority who famously investigated okay and fuck. “Professor Read was a modest, proper gentleman and wrote about fuck without ever spelling it out,” she says. “But he felt that the ‘bad’ words should be given as much linguistic attention as the other words in our language.”

Lexical Evidence is a compilation of the dirty words he had encountered as a teenager in men’s bathroom graffiti. Each entry is broken down into various senses, so ass is: ‘posterior,’ ‘donkey,’ ‘stupid person’ and ‘woman,’ as in a piece of ass, each with corresponding graffiti and a brief summation of how the words had been treated in dictionary history. “It’s an extremely dirty book, and an extremely scholarly book, and fun,” she says, adding that he could only publish it in France, in 1935, printing just seventy-five copies. She eventually got the personal copy of the author, who became her mentor.

From the slang wall, she digs out The Pocket Dictionary of Prison Slanguage, by Clinton T. Duffy, the warden of San Quentin, published in 1941. After gently removing it from the plastic sheath that protects many of the special books, I look inside and find heater (revolver), torpedo (assassin) and backdoor parole (dying in prison).

About eighty years earlier, the first municipal police chief of New York City, George W. Matsell, put together a similar book for his colleagues so they could understand the cant of the city’s criminals– The Rogue’s Lexicon, which ranges from the familiar pig (cop) to more obscure entries like diver (pickpocket) and ballum-rancum (a dance at which all the attendees are thieves and prostitutes).

And speaking of the underworld, where slang runs rampant, she takes out a worn, slim green volume called Larks of London, published in 1840, by the pseudonymous Dick Rambleton. It is “unrecorded,” meaning there aren’t any other known copies, one of about a dozen sole existing books Kripke possesses. It’s a guide to the underbelly of the city and includes the language of its denizens, with a subtitle that reads, in part: “The Swell’s guide to all the flash cribs, harmonic meetings, cock-and-hen clubs, night-houses, ‘Little Goes’ and ‘Big Goes,’ flash houses, seducing houses, and all sorts of houses.”

A foldout page in “Larks of London.”

Then there’s Lou Shelly’s 1945 Hepcats Jive Talk Dictionary, which features a section on “Jeographical Jive,” such as bedpan from Japan (an unglamorous person) and lucky from Kentucky (a favorite) and cool expressions like trig the wig (think hard).

“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.” She mentions some Yiddish dictionaries she has from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which though not slang per se illustrate the point by having the expressed purpose of deciphering the language of the Jews so as not to get cheated by them.

Opposite the slang wall on the same majestic bookshelves are her “more serious books,” grouped by kind–English usage, biographies of lexicographers, salesmen’s sample dictionaries, books about etymology and proverbs, and the standard dictionaries of many languages. In the side room are sections devoted to dialects, pidgins and creoles, language play, bibliography of lexicography. She is fascinated by how dictionaries evolved, she says, and of all the branches of dictionary study, is most intrigued by the historical.

Speaking of which, she undoes some bubble wrap and unveils her oldest book, what she calls “a foundation stone in the history of dictionaries.” It is a Latin dictionary printed in 1502 whose abbreviated title is Calepino or Dictionarium. “These pages look like they were printed yesterday,” she says, affectionately running her hands over the giant book in her lap. “They’re just fresh.”

Kripke with the oldest book in her collection–a Latin “Calepino” dictionary, printed in 1502.

Kripke has also amassed a wide variety of printed media, like old newspapers and magazines, such as the Police Gazette, which is chock-full of slang. She has boxed antique word games hundreds of years old, and a ton of ephemera, such as dictionary ads and prospectuses, postcards with dictionary content, order slips, brochures, advertising matchbook covers and blotters, circulars, and other rarities, like a long mimeographed sheet from a 1930s Philadelphia radio station that has a glossary of hipster slang that includes jitter sauce (liquor) and hepped (to be wise to things). “They have a historic and visual value,” she says of ephemera, “and are often one-of-a-kind.”

A glossary of pickpocket slang put out by the Metropolitan Transit Authority in 1980.

She also keeps collections of books on graffiti and tattoos, which as popular culture images have a slang element. Among her countless gems, she has a booklet printed in 1722 by Jonathan Swift entitled, The Benefits of Farting Explained, which offers a detailed taxonomy peppered with unrestrained wordplay. And she boasts one of the biggest collections in the world of Tijuana Bibles–satirical erotic comics that were illegal but popular in the early-to-mid twentieth century. “I could say I was interested in the slang they contained, and I was,” she says. “But I was also interested in the phenomenon, and the early ones had a lot of charm.”

Kripke’s clientele has consisted mainly of lexicographers and collectors, many of whom she met through professional organizations such as the Dictionary Society of North America, like Jesse Sheidlower, the Editor at Large of the Oxford English Dictionary. He has purchased many books from her, and in a recent phone interview from his office in New York, said Kripke has always been a wonderful resource for obscure dictionaries, reference works and matters of slang, an area of interest to him as well.

Whatever dictionary he inquires about, “she can tell you more about it than anyone else out there,” he said. “She will know about its history, and she will have a copy of the person who wrote it with marginal annotations in the author’s hand. Whatever it is, she will have it.”

Sheidlower recalled when he first met her at the beginning of his career twenty years ago. He had heard about her but didn’t know much and asked about a particular dictionary he thought was hard to get. She not only had numerous editions but even offered a complete discourse on it.

“I thought she’d have lots of copies of all these common things, but I had no idea that she was a better library than the Library of Congress,” he said. “And that was then. Now it’s that much better still.”

As far as her books on slang, “it’s the most important collection in the world,” he said, “there’s no question about it, far and away.”

Nevertheless, so much is never enough and the hunt goes on, Kripke says. She’s still buying rare and special books to “round out” her collection, albeit in a much choosier way than before, at the subdued rate of up to ten books a month (sometimes spending as much as thousands of dollars on one item).

“I don’t think I will ever stop buying,” she says. “Once the book bug has bit you, it doesn’t let go.” And besides, she would miss what has been a daily part of her life for so long–hunting for books. In the old days, acquisition was through trade publications like AB Bookman’s Weekly, book fairs, bookstores and auctions. These days, less active outside her home, she does it mostly by Internet, but still likes going to book fairs when possible.

However, there is a reason to stop: “I don’t have room,” she says. Though she does have three storage facilities, with about 10,000 books, most of which are for sale or are non-dictionary related. I pointed out some open wall space where shelves could be put up to accommodate more, but she says she’d rather just put some in storage.

Kripke hasn’t sold books for a few years, but has yet to decide if she is retired. Despite all the inventory, there is other pressing work to be done. Like, for instance, digitally cataloging the whole collection. With the help of two paid assistants, she has been working for a decade making entries in a painstaking process that involves a great deal of research, sometimes hours for one book. As of July 2013, the number of titles in the database had reached 5,750. “It’s iceberg slow,” she says. “I don’t expect to finish it in my lifetime. It will go on long beyond me.”

Another major project is organizing the Merriam-Webster archive, which humbly sits in a cluster of thirty boxes near the window in the main room. It contains thousands of (mostly) nineteenth century documents pertaining to business matters, editorial issues and various campaigns as well as a slew of correspondence, the most notable being a letter from Walt Whitman, dated April 17, 1849, Brooklyn.

Regarding the future of the collection, she would like very much for it to stay intact, but that might be a tall order since the recipient could disregard her request, especially if it’s joining another collection. First she has to figure out whether to sell or donate it. She is considering leaving it to a university’s library, but declines to say which.

“If I magically had my druthers,” she says, “I could just buy a building and declare it the Dictionary Library or the Lexicography Museum, and have an institution carry it on.” But since that’s unlikely, the fate of the collection is up in the air.

For now, she’s still learning. Thinking back to the Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary she got in fifth grade, she says she recently started keeping a record of unfamiliar words as she had back then. She brings out a small notebook where she has been making entries, like bobo (bohemian bourgeoisie), kraken (a mythical sea monster) and jactitate (to toss restlessly about). It seems she has come full circle in her journey.

“Dictionaries themselves unlock the world for me,” she says.

Madeline Kripke died on April 25, 2020, at age 76 .

Daniel Krieger, a freelance contributing editor at Narratively, is a freelance journalist in New York. He contributes to The New York Times and his work has also appeared in Fast Company, Wired, Slate, Salon, and New York magazine.

How was it? Save stories you love and never lose them.

Logo for Narratively

This post originally appeared on Narratively and was published August 15, 2013. This article is republished here with permission.

Vist narratively.com to discover more articles about ordinary people with extraordinary stories.

Visit Narratively