David B. Guralnik, Lexicographer, 19212000


During his 37-year tenure as editor in chief of Webster's New World dictionaries, David Guralnik enjoyed the rare distinction of fathering royalty. The college edition of the New World linea dictionary Guralnik helped to create, and whose ongoing revisions he oversaw for nearly four decadesbecame the standard reference of the Associated Press, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and many other newspapers throughout the United States. Indeed, the dictionary was so highly regarded that over the years it earned a respectful sobriquet: “the Rex of Lex.”

Under Guralnik's editorial leadership, Webster's New World dictionaries were among the first to include colloquial usages, idioms and pronunciations unique to the U.S. Ultimately, these distinctly American dictionaries achieved such widespread acceptance and popularity that by the year 2000 more than 80 million people were using the college edition alone. It could be said of Guralnik, therefore, that few other individuals have had so profound an influence on the quotidian language of the nation. And all this from a man who, when he started working as a lexicographer, did not even own a dictionary.

The day after he graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in English from Adelbert College (now Case Western Reserve University) in 1941, Guralnik was hired by Cleveland's World Publishing Company to work as a summer editorial assistant on a simple revision of one of the firm's inexpensive dictionaries. Although he planned to return to the university's graduate English program in the fall to earn a master's degree, Guralnik was persuaded to stay at World and continue working on the revision. After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, he returned to World Publishing, where he was asked to finish the job of creating the company's first college edition of the dictionary. Pursuing his M.A. even as he worked full time, he was named dictionary editor in 1948.

Guralnik did not accept the widely held conviction that his job as a lexicographer required him to entomb a given era's English in a protective block of amber. He believed in the mutability of language, and he saw his role as a chronicler of the changes that occurred naturally in language over timehe would describe, not prescribe. Thus, if the World staff and its legion of outside “readers” noted enough citations of a particular new word, usage, meaning or spelling in contemporary journalism, literature or popular culture, the new material would be included in the next revisions of World's dictionaries. In addition, World publications always included what are generally considered to be the most detailed etymologies used in any American dictionary.

Guralnik retired in December 1985 as vice president and dictionary editor in chief of Simon & Schuster, Inc., which had purchased World Publishing in 1980. Even in retirement he continued to explore language, producing a weekly segment on Yiddish for The Jewish Scene, a cultural program on Cleveland radio.

Guralnik was a longtime Fellow of the Dictionary Society of North America and served as its president for many years. He remained editor of Webster's New World dictionaries until his death at age 79, in May 2000. But his judgment, taste and wisdom will continue to have an impact on the written and spoken English of Americans for generations to come.

—Mark Gottlieb



We had determined that our word-stock would comprise more than the usual dictionary entries. We would devote particular care to the important idiomatic phrases that are such a vital part of English and that had largely been neglected by preceding dictionaries. Thus, under the entry for mind, where one popular dictionary had entered no phrases and where another had only put in mind, we entered bear in mind, be in one's right mind, be of one mind, be of two minds, be out of one's mind, call to mind, change one's mind, give a person a piece of one's mind, have a (good or great) mind to, have half a mind to, have in mind, keep in mind, keep one's mind on, know one's mind, make up one's mind, meeting of minds, never mind, on one's mind, set one's mind on, speak one's mind, take one's mind off, to one's mind. We also planned to enter with a fullness hitherto unknown colloquialisms and slang, the informal and vulgate words that are so rich and characteristic a feature of American English. Thus, in addition to the well-established entries, such as dead beat, double cross, flophouse, sob sister, and vamp, we would include a large number of widely used terms that had been overlooked by our predecessors, such as fungo, cover girl, jerk, double take, big time, Hooper rating, sixty-four dollar question, and cousin in the very special slang sense that indicates the relationship born by the Detroit Tigers to our own Indians this past season.

We were determined . . . to avoid at all costs creating the impression (first perpetrated by Johnson and continued by most of his successors) that we are authoritarians laying down the law about usage. We would rather play the role of a guide, pointing out what the accepted usage actually is.

Corpus delicti [L., lit., body of the crime], 1. the facts constituting or proving a crime: the corpus delecti in a murder case is not the body of the victim, but the fact that death has occurred and that it is the result of murder. 2. loosely, the body of the victim in a murder case.

You will note that even though we carefully explain the legal meaning of the term, we recognize the popular “erroneous” use in our second sense.

Our approach to language in general and to grammar in particular was to be built in the light of contemporary linguistics, from the scientific point of view of a descriptive, rather than a proscriptive, grammar . . . . Our treatment of the word ain't may well illustrate this point of view. We say for ain't:

[early assimilation, with lengthened and raised vowel, of amn't, contr. of am not; later confused with a'nt (are not), i'nt (is not), ha'nt (has not, have not)], [Colloq.], am not: also a dialectical or substandard contraction for is not, has not, and have not: ain't was formerly standard for am not and is still defended by some authorities as a proper contraction for am not in interrogative constructions: as, I'm going too, ain't I?

— Excerpts from “The Making of a New Dictionary,” by David B. Guralnik, a paper read before the Rowfant Club of Cleveland, November 30, 1951

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