Leading Lexicologist

Madeline Kripke ’65 amassed one of the world’s largest collections of dictionaries

By Isabella Pechaty ’23

If afforded the opportunity, many people would choose to collect comics, antiques, or trading cards, but few can claim to have built a collection more essential and instructive than Madeline Kripke ’65, who died in April at the age of 76. Driven by an unrivaled passion for language, she turned her West Village apartment into an indispensable resource — with over 20,000 dictionaries — for the lexicographic community.

Born in 1943 in New London, Connecticut, Kripke grew up primarily in Omaha, Nebraska, where her father, Rabbi Myer Kripke, led the Beth El Synagogue, and her mother, Dorothy Kripke, authored Jewish educational children’s books. At a young age, Kripke developed an appreciation and insatiable curiosity for words that began when her parents gave her a Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. It marked a turning point for the burgeoning bibliophile, who found a new, invaluable tool at her disposal. From then on, anytime Kripke came across an unfamiliar word, she dutifully recorded it in a notebook for future reference.

Madeline Kripke

At Barnard, she pursued an English degree and contributed to the Barnard Bulletin as a staff member. During this time, she also immersed herself in New York City’s cultural zeitgeist of the 1960s, describing herself as “a cross between a beatnik and hippie” to Daniel Kreiger, who profiled her in 2013 for the media platform Narratively.

After graduation, Kripke remained in the city and held a number of jobs, including welfare case worker, teacher, copy editor, and proofreader. Dictionaries, of course, came in handy for professional purposes. But then, she discovered they offered up so much more. “Dictionaries themselves unlock the world for me,” she told Kreiger.

When it came to collecting, the dictionaries won out over any desire for personal comfort or convenience. Inside her apartment, books occupied every inch of space save for a small designated sleeping area. In photographs, she always appeared dwarfed among her boxes and stacks of carefully organized and preserved volumes.

In the mid-1970s, Kripke decided to focus solely on collecting and dealing dictionaries, obtaining her seller’s license in 1976. Even as a self-taught lexicographer, she amassed an extensive collection that could satisfy the most obscure craving of any linguistics devotee. Kripke recognized the historical and scholarly significance of all different kinds of printed media, and her personal repository reflected these wide-ranging interests: Alongside her dictionaries, there were advertisements, newspapers, correspondence, and magazines. She also sought out a variety of books that captured the inclusive and dynamic nature of a language, including the lingo of Valley Girls, pickpockets, and soldiers. For Kripke, nothing was too inappropriate or esoteric —she had a particular affinity for material that fused the scholarly with the irreverent.

Among the more unusual and rare books in her collection was a Latin dictionary from 1502, in which the text was so small that it required a magnifying glass to read, as well as a prisoner slang glossary written by a San Quentin warden. One of her favorites, Lexical Evidence from Folk Epigraphy in Western North America, investigated the origins of the f-word and cataloged the author’s encounters with bathroom-wall graffiti.

At one point, Kripke’s collection reached maximum capacity — filling her apartment and three warehouses — and nearly resulted in an eviction in the 1990s. It was her wish to construct a personal library to house her beloved collection that would be made available to scholars and fellow linguists.Though she never realized this dream, her brother Saul Kripke told The New York Times that he was working with “expert friends” to make sure her trove of books found the right home.

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