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  • Madeline Kripke 1943–2020:In Memoriam1
  • Jonathon Green (bio)

Madeline Kripke, who died aged 76 on April 25, 2020, yet another of New York's many victims of Covid-19, was for the bulk of her life the world's leading, if not unique collector of lexicographical material, both historical and contemporary. This was especially the case as regarded her unrivalled library of slang dictionaries and allied "counter-linguistic" material, which had set her career in motion more than forty years ago. The classic poacher-turned-gamekeeper, she moved from a fascination with dictionaries, first encountered as source of delight when very young, to establishing herself as a dealer in their finest or most recondite examples, with a focus on the less respected, but by extension less easily available slang lexis, and finally, falling in love with her stock as must be a temptation for every variety of dealer, to become a collector pure and simple. If one might rewrite the alleged "whore's excuse," in collecting terms, "first she did it for herself, and then she did it for money and finally then she did it for her friends." "Friends" being a wide category: her generosity to slang lexicographers was legendary, as it was to all scholarly enquirers. Those who could make the trip were invited to her apartment, others might be given scans of precious material. [End Page 277]

Her death brought many personal tributes, plus a lengthy obituary in the New York Times, with variations in the serious press of France, Italy, India, and elsewhere. All praised her devotion and the success it brought. It quoted some of her interviews, which talked of "the gifted in pursuit of the valued" and named her "The Dame of Dictionaries."

I would like, if I may, to intersperse a few personal memories. I am sure that others will have their own, very likely better informed, but these are mine. Living in London I could never be a regular or intimate visitor, but when through some kindly recommendation, perhaps in the Nineties, I was given her address in Perry Street, Greenwich Village, New York City, I was keen to use it. Thus I did, presenting myself as a slang lexicographer who had just disposed of a collection of P.G. Wodehouse with the aim of obtaining some of the stand-out examples of my craft. I had found a dealer in such dictionaries nearer home and was starting to pick up her less expensive offerings, when I was told—why do I sense that there was a degree of bated breath and awe involved?—of this woman in New York. If I wanted to play the game, then hers was the team one had to join. So I wrote, and asked for a catalogue. No reply ever came back. Her dealing days, I would find out, had passed. She had succumbed, it would appear, to the bugbear that must bedevil every dealer—whether in books, carpets, furniture, whatever antiquarian speciality one chose—the reluctance to let go one's stock. Now she had the one job: collecting. She would do it as well as any, and for our discipline of lexicography in general and slang in particular, far, far away better than that.

Madeline Kripke, known as Linnie to her immediate family, notably her brother the world-renowned philosopher Saul, but simply Madeline to the many who revered her, was the greatest collector of dictionaries, primarily those of slang, that the world has known, and very likely will ever know. There was also a sidebar in erotica, notably a collection, again unrivalled, of what were known as eight-pagers, Tillie and Mac or jo-jo books, bluesies and gray-backs, but mainly as Tijuana Bibles. Small, ill-drawn, crude in every sense, vastly obscene renditions of celebrities, mainly Hollywood (both human and animated), in the copulations of someone's one-handed dreams. Lavatory walls, effectively, brought to print. If such a thing might be envisaged, one of slang's even naughtier little offspring. She also gathered in material that stemmed from mainstream dictionary-making, notably some unique papers [End Page 278] regarding G. & C. Merriam at a time when the...


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