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May 21: Five Million Words about Words

May 31, 2013

amoEugene Ehrlich, a self-taught lexicographer who wrote an estimated three to five million words about words spread across forty books, according to the New York Times, was born in New York on this date in 1922. Ehrlich taught himself Yiddish in order to understand his parents’ secrets, and also studied Latin and French at Townsend Harris High. As a City College student, he took many language courses while majoring in education. During World War II, he took a crash-course in Japanese and became an interrogator of prisoners. He taught for many years at Columbia University and also consulted with defense contractors. His many books included The Highly Selective Thesaurus for the Extraordinarily Literate (1994), Les Bons Mots, or How to Amaze Tout le Monde With Everyday French (1997), You’ve Got Ketchup on Your Muumuu: An A-to-Z Guide to English Words From Around the World (2000), and the Dictionary of Golden Adjectives (2002). At his death in 2008, he was working on a book about the Yiddish he heard growing up in New York.

“[H]e offered obscure words as a road to seeming erudite. ‘Piacular’ means sinful or wicked, ‘sapid’ means having a pleasing taste, and ‘obnubilate’ means to make unclear.” —Douglas Martin