RIP, Larry Urdang, Logophile

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The New York Times carries an obituary today for lexicographer Larry Urdang, who was the managing editor of the first edition of the Random House Dictionary of the English Language and the founding editor of the language quarterly Verbatim. He studied linguistics at Columbia University and lectured on the subject at New York University, but he never completed his dissertation. His wife Nicole told the Times, "He always said he considered the Random House dictionary his dissertation."

Urdang also wrote dozens of other specialized dictionaries and word compendiums. The Times describes one:

“-Ologies and -Isms” was a compilation of words used to name or describe “theories, concepts, doctrines, systems, attitudes, practices, states of mind and branches of science” and emphasizing those with particular suffixes: -ology, -ism, -graphy, -metry, -archy, -cide, -philia, -phobia, -mancy and -latry. Logophile, for instance: “A lover of words. Also called philologue, philologer.”

And his logophilia was on full display in the introduction of his 1972 book, The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words:

“This is not a succedaneum for satisfying the nympholepsy of nullifidians. Rather it is hoped that the haecceity of this enchiridion of arcane and recondite sesquipedalian items will appeal to the oniomania of an eximious Gemeinschaft whose legerity and sophrosyne, whose Sprachgefühl and orexis will find more than fugacious fulfillment among its felicific pages.”

Urdang remained active in his final years, making his rather crotchety presence known on the mailing lists of the American Dialect Society and the Dictionary Society of North America. He is being remembered fondly by members of those two organizations, and his legacy will live on in the DSNA's Laurence Urdang Award, given annually to recognize lexicographical excellence. He will be greatly missed.


  1. Albert said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 12:12 pm

    I hope no one minds, but that final quote, in plainer English is:

    "This is not a [substitute] for satisfying the [frenzy] of [unbelievers]. Rather it is hoped that the [essence] of this [little book] of arcane and [obscure] [poly-syllablic] items will appeal to the [need of some people to find the absolute right word] of a [select] [group] whose [quick-wittedness] and [self-control], whose [sense of how to best use language] and [appetite] will find more than [fleeting] fulfillment among its [joy-bringing] pages."

    Apologies and what-nots if I picked the wrong synonyms.

  2. Clayton Burns said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 7:19 pm

    Urdang's work was valuable (I especially liked "Modifiers"), but I find it puzzling that he never developed the idea of the dictionary of spectra. The spectrum dictionary would sort words into "alienated or estranged" to "adjusted or temperate" to "conditioned or indoctrinated." Of course, "indoctrinated" could bend around to meet "alienated."

    Many students want to pick up large chunks of well-organized vocabulary (the worst way of doing so is perhaps through SAT prep manuals). Although the dictionaries now available are remarkable (COBUILD, Oxford, and Longman Language Activator), the analytical power of the spectrum dictionary has never been explored.

    Urdang no doubt would have wanted to comment at the discussion re the Biden "comma suture" (I was about to say "seizure"), an issue which seems to have been mis-characterized by a certain Linguistics professor.

    Perhaps I will post here my ideas about a limited Internet poetry database so as to facilitate discussion about teaching the sound system(s) of English.

  3. Marinus said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 8:16 am

    Allow me to nit-pick on a point of professional jargon: 'essence' isn't a perfect substitute for 'haecceity' in this instance – 'haecceity' means, close as anything, 'thisness'. On one story of how individual instances of universal concepts come about is that you mix the universal with a dose of 'thisness' to, say, fashion red-in-general into this instance of red. 'essence' can be used for individuals, but for universals as well ('the essence a book is to be a repository of knowledge') while haecceity could only concern individuals. What 'essence', thorugh this ambiguity, is in danger of doing here is inviting you to say something about books of the Everyday Reader's type. 'distinctiveness' would be better here and in general, and 'what is distinctive about this [little book] in particular' would be best.

  4. marie-lucie said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 7:07 pm

    The sample of logomania given above reminds me of a time in graduate school when I was reading the posted abstracts for the upcoming defenses of theses and dissertations. One of them was from the chemistry department: the only thing I understood was that the presentation would be in English – apart from "the", "are" and other such grammatical words, the vocabulary was totally unintelligible to someone not in the field.

  5. John Cowan said,

    September 4, 2008 @ 4:29 pm

    "Please uplift your messages outwith the store." –sign in Edinburgh

  6. Conrad said,

    September 4, 2008 @ 7:37 pm

    'Enchiridion' is more specific than a little book: it is (literally) a handbook.

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