David B. Guralnik, Lexicographer, 1921–2000
1985 SPECIAL CITATION FOR DISTINGUISHED SERVICE TO THE ARTS
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
line—a dictionary Guralnik helped to create, and whose ongoing revisions he oversaw for nearly four decades—became 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.”
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.
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.
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
time—he 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Cleveland Arts Prize
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