Guralnik, David B.

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GURALNIK, DAVID B. (1920–2000), U.S. lexicographer, one of the most influential figures in the 20th century in shaping the English language. Guralnik was the editor of the authoritative Webster's New World line of dictionaries from 1948 to 1985. He was born in Cleveland and had a passion for Yiddish, which he learned as a child. He intended to become a teacher but after graduating from Western Reserve University in 1941, he took the advice of one of his teachers and took a dictionary writing job at the World Publishing Company of Cleveland. After three years in the Army during World War ii, where he was a translator, he said he could "manage" French, German, Russian, Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, languages he learned as a child and young man. He was the interpreter for his battalion, which called on him to speak four languages the day it liberated a German camp holding Russian and French soldiers as prisoners.

After the war, Guralnik returned to the publishing company and became editor in chief of its New World family of dictionaries. He was 28. Over the next 37 years he supervised works that carried his view of American English around the world. As the gatekeeper for words seeking admission to the literary mainstream, his definitions guided tens of millions of people who thumbed through the dictionaries he edited, and he wrote many of the definitions of new words himself. Among the works he edited, the best known is the College Edition of Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language, a one-volume desktop popular not only among students but also with writers and other professionals. "Our emphasis is on the English language as spoken in America," he said, "and for that reason we chose to call it the dictionary of the American language. It does for the American language what the Oxford English Dictionary does for the language as a whole." The dictionary rules as the standard reference for the Associated Press, United Press International, The New York Times, and nearly every major news organization in the United States. The line has sold 85 million copies. The first edition appeared in 1953 and over the next decades the staff struggled to keep up with "not only a population explosion, but an information explosion of unprecedented proportions," Guralnik said in the foreword to the second edition. New words, new pronunciations, and new meanings were being born without the customary time for incubation.

He invariably had to answer questions as society's norms changed about which words, if any, to bar. He decided to eliminate racial epithets and to omit some common vulgar words. Some of these words were restored in the third edition, after his retirement. He later engaged in a war of words with the publisher of the 13-volume Oxford dictionary over parts of its treatment of the word "Jew," with a definition that referred to old stereotypes of usurious moneylenders.

Guralnik was a leader in the Jewish community of Cleveland, delivering a weekly radio commentary on words called A Yiddish Vort. And he spoke and wrote often on the subject. He was president of the Jewish Community Center, vice president of The Cleveland Jewish News, and a trustee of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland.

[Stewart Kampel (2nd ed.)]