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The Wizard of Words

Barbara Bensoussan

While Jews are rarely at a loss for words, not many of us can rattle off an obscure word’s definition, etymology, and pronunciation. But Sol Steinmetz, who passed away last fall, was such a person — a true “lexical supermaven” who also never forgot what it meant to be a mentsch.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

— Mark Twain

Words are of interest to everyone, especially to Jews, the descendents of Shem (“name”) and the “People of the Book.” Samuel Johnson, the eighteenth-century compiler of an authoritative dictionary of the English language, called them “the dress of thought”; another wit described them as the best nonsurgical way to transfer thoughts from one head to another. Just as a person’s use of vocabulary and elocution demarcate lines of social class and origin, language situates people in terms of an era, since new expressions and technical terms enter and leave the sea of language with the regularity of tides.

There are people who devote their professional lives to defining and tracking words, officially known as lexicographers. Their work is largely invisible to us, but they make up the small but essential core of people who devote themselves to expanding and updating such indispensable institutions as the Random House Dictionary and Oxford English Dictionary.

All very well and good, you may say, but is this a job for a Jewish boy? For Rabbi Sol Steinmetz, who left us this past October 13 and who became a lexicographer as a natural result of his fascination with language and a polyglot status earned through a childhood scattered among a handful of countries, it most certainly was. Considered one of the top-tier word experts in the United States — he edited dictionaries at Merriam-Webster and Barnhardt and was the executive editor of Random House’s Dictionary Department — he was also good friends with New York Times columnist William Safire, author of the popular “On Language” column. Safire would later dub him a “lexical supermaven” and consult him frequently on etymological questions, especially where Yiddish was concerned.

Steinmetz’s readers and colleagues were largely unaware of the fact that, in addition to his many ways with words, he received a coveted smichah from Rav Soleveitchik as a young man and that he was born in Hungary. “He had no interest in dwelling in the past,” says daughter-in-law Ettie Steinmetz. “Only the genealogy of words held his interest.”

In his final year, however, as his health began to fail from the onslaught of many years of anti-rejection drugs, Steinmetz organized his memories into an autobiography of about ninety pages. “I read most of it sitting next to his hospital bed,” says Rabbi Reuven Fink, the rav of Steinmetz’s shul in New Rochelle, who says Steinmetz never missed a hashkamah minyan or a shiur. “As I went through it, it helped me realize how much his life fit together into one seamless whole.”

 

 

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