Collecting Slang: a tribute to the doyenne of dictionaries

Collecting Slang: a tribute to the doyenne of dictionaries
by Sarah Bennett

This piece, as well as an extract coming in our Autumn 2020 issue, is dedicated to the memory of Madeline Kripke, ‘the doyenne of dictionaries’ who passed away on 25 April 2020 at the age of 76.


“What slang really does is show us at our most human” says Johnathon Green, aka ‘Mister Slang’, a scholar of slang for over 40 years.

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, many people have been turning to slang to lighten the tone, and help describe the previously unimaginable scenario in which we now find ourselves.

The Economist 1843 Magazine recently published a collection of ‘covid-19’ slang, to help people brush up on their pandemic parlance. It includes new words from many languages including English, German, Italian, Latvian and Chinese. Read it here>

Furthermore, in our splendid 18th century issue this autumn, we'll have an entire article devoted to Dr Johnson's single-handed dictionary of 1755, the first comprehensive attempt to explain and define our wonderfully slippery language

Historically, tracking slang has been difficult, as it is usually spoken before it is written down. It is also often designed to be confusing (to adults and authority figures at least).

Urban Dictionary is the technological solution to these challenges in modern times. The online dictionary of slang words and phrases, was founded by Aaron Peckham in 1999.

Since then it has received upwards of 2,000 entries per day, submitted by the public. New words and phrases are voted on by thousands of volunteer editors who decide to ‘Publish’ or ‘Not Publish’.

Many words and phrases have several definitions and descriptions, often based on context or the geography of its use. They are not all new creations, some entries simply offer new interpretations of existing words, or ironic observations from the modern generation.

80% of Urban Dictionary users are under the age of 25. The entries can be funny and astute, but more often lean to the vulgar and crass.

It can be a useful resource to anyone who has struggled to communicate with a teenager, or attempted wade through the messy business of ‘text speak’.

For your amusement we have collected some choice examples of Urban Dictionary’s more ‘literary’ entries:



  1. A Book is a non-volatile, stable database that does not lose data no matter how many times you drop it, spill your beer on it, or close it incorrectly. Books are more stable even than Optical Media. Storage is only limited by the amount of space and volume that the owner can physically carry. Some storage units seem to last for years, and whilst the background colour or 'fill' of the pages may degrade to a kind of #F5F5DC beige, the actual data is still readily retrievable.
  2. Portable sanctuaries. Books can provide such wonderful escapes. They are like your own little sanctuary to lose yourself in.
  3. A piece of your soul. Something that can break you and crush you, but can also make your life. 
  4. A place to let your mind run free from reality, a work of art creating their own world.


Book Abuse

When you treat your books recklessly, or cause harm to a book without artistic/good intentions


Book Affair

Reading a short, casual, fun book (usually a paperback or trade paperback) while attempting to read a much longer more complex book.


Book Pirate

One who infringes the copyright of a book by reading it in the store and memorizing it without paying for it.


Book Sauce

Information derived from books.

"You don't know? Well lemme hit you with some book sauce..."


Hemingway (verb)

The act of writing a particularly lengthy blog, article or essay, while consuming moderate to large quantities of alcohol. Can be done to help stimulate creativity but most of the time the writer is just a borderline alcoholic.


  1. A place where people bathe in books.

Child: ‘Mom, I'm going to the library for a while.’
Mom: ‘Okay, sweetie. Don't forget to use soap.’

  1. A place to borrow books for free. Note: It is not pronounced "lie-berry"



Information Master / One to be worshiped

Librarians wield unfathomable power, bring order to chaos, wisdom and culture to the masses, preserve every aspect of human knowledge and rule the information universe.



How a librarian acts.


Librarian Rescue Squad

Dispatching a library worker to quell loud and disorderly people.


Reader's Block

When reading a boring piece of literature, such as a school Biology textbook or assigned reading book for English, you seem to lose track of time and begin reading the same sentence over and over again, while absorbing none of it.


Shakespeare (verb)

To invent, or otherwise put a new word into practice.



  1. A bibliography of the various William Shakespeare works which one has read, heard, seen or otherwise ingested into one's brain. Literally: one’s experience of Shakespeare.
  2. When you have an encounter that reminds you in any way, shape or form of Shakespeare and/or any of his works.



When someone is trying to speak in Shakespearean but just throws in a couple of ‘thou's’ and ‘thines’.



Someone who has the power to turn caffeine into words.


Madeline Kripke, ‘The doyenne of dictionaries’

The two cornerstones of Madeline Kripke’s 20,000 strong collection (that left her Greenwich Village apartment bursting at the seams), were Captain Francis Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (London 1796, third edition), the most prominent  and influential dictionary of English slang until the late 1800s, and Allen Walker Read’s Lexical Evidence from Folk Epigraphy in Western North America: A Glossarial Study of the Low Element in the English Vocabulary (Lecram-Servant, Paris, 1935), which – despite the academic-sounding title to help the book get past censors – was an alphabetical study of the “bad” words found in graffiti on the walls of men’s rooms in national parks.

Of course, Kripke’s collection spanned way beyond slang. She assigned endless categories for her dictionaries and manuscripts including army, aviation, trucker, gambler, feminist, Wall Street, cowboy, gay, American Indian, and a large section on the language of crime. She had many books by and about the venerable Noah Webster, books on medical words such as Medical Philology by L. M. Griffiths (J.W. Arrowsmith, Bristol, 1905) and a 1553 Latin Dictionary by John Withals titled A Dictionarie in English and Latine for Children, and Yonge Beginners (1602 edition, augmented by William Clerk).

Madeline Kripke’s collection was never completed. Nor could it have been. As with the development of language itself, the task is never ending. Kripke sought only to create a great collection of interest, highlighting in the history of dictionaries, words and definitions, something to ‘illuminate the past, present and future.’

In a 2007 article and interview, Bruce McKinney wrote of Madeline Kripke,

“It is her goal that someday the collection will be fully accessible on the net under the administration of an institution to which she gifts what a modern slang dictionary might call the whole enchilada. They will act as gatekeeper and guardian to this history of language that at once can and should be both an extraordinary collection and a magnet that attracts additional material, as it emerges, to join the collection's electronic shelves; a collection that illuminates and snowballs.”

Unfortunately, these arrangements were never finalised and the fate of her extraordinary collection is unknown. The decision now falls to Kripke’s friends in the trade, of which there are many, thanks to her “generosity and virtuosity as a resource of etymology, pronunciation and usage and especially every variety of vulgarity and slang, from the indigenous argot of Argentina to the patois of vaudeville, the London underworld, cowboys, hipsters and generations of teenagers.”


Referenced articles:

'Do you speak Corona?', 1843 Magazine, 2020

'Why Slang Is More Revealing Than You May Realise', Katy Steinmetz, Time Magazine, 2018 

Obituary of Madeline Kripke, Sam Roberts, The New York Times, April 2020 

'The Gifted in Pursuit of the Valued', Bruce McKinney, Rare Book Hub, 2007 

A digital version of the 1811 edition of Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue is available to browse via Project Gutenberg here >  


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