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David Shulman

DAVID Shulman, a self-described Sherlock Holmes of "Americanisms" who dug through obscure, often crumbling publications to hunt down the first use of thousands of words, died last week in Brooklyn. He was 91.

Jesse Sheidlower, the editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary, said Shulman contributed uncountable early usages to the 20-volume lexicon. "All very good stuff," he said.

"What David did was read through the sort of things most people don’t read," he added, mentioning yellowing editions of the National Police Gazette.

Mr Sheidlower said only a few contributors were more prolific and fewer still possessed Shulman’s knack for sending usable material. His name appeared in the front matter to OED’s epochal second edition, each of the Addition Series volumes and is currently on the website.

Shulman avoided excessive modesty, letting it drop that he was, at least temporarily, the last word on words that included "The Great White Way," "Big Apple," "doozy" and "hoochie-coochie".

Gerald Cohen, the professor of foreign languages at the University of Missouri said Shulman did indeed contribute to the understanding of all these words and many more.

He said Shulman’s most pioneering effort concerned the term "hot dog". He found the word was college slang before it was a sausage, paving the way for deeper investigation. A book on hot dog’s glossarial provenance will appear this year under the names of Shulman, Prof Cohen and Barry Popick.

Prof Cohen said Shulman obliterated a big impediment to finding the origins of the word "jazz" by proving it was on a 1919 record, not the 1909 version of the same disk. (Other scholars traced first use of the term to the baseball columns of Scoop Gleeson, a sports reporter writing in the San Francisco Bulletin in 1913.)

Prof Cohen said that Shulman was first to challenge that "shyster" derived from a lawyer named Scheuster. Others, particularly Roger Mohovich, then traced the etymology to 1843-1844. "Shyster" turned out to be a Yiddish corruption of a German vulgarism meaning a crooked lawyer.

Shulman considered the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue to be his real home. He commuted by subway to its rare books room, to which he donated valuable volumes.

"David Shulman was the one reader I could count on seeing at the library every day," Paul LeClerc, the president of the library, said. "We often spoke about his work, and I never knew anyone who thrilled to bookish discoveries as he did."

Every inch of Shulman, from his well-worn trainers to his plastic bag crammed with scrawled notes to his soiled baseball cap, suggested the classic New York eccentric. He recorded his finds on index cards, sending them to the OED when he accumulated 100.

His obsessions included trying to prove that one Steve Brodie jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge on July 23, 1886, not faking it as many reports claimed. He once wrote a sonnet, "Washington Crossing the Delaware" in which each line is an anagram of the title.

But after 70 years at the library, he revealed how he had encountered, well, even odder individuals. There was the well-dressed chap who wandered about for years carrying his hat and never touching a book. Or the man who tracked down burial places of 60,000 New Jersey soldiers. Shulman finally asked him why.

"I might as well be plain with you," the man replied, according to an interview with Shulman in 1990. "I’m a nut."

David Shulman was born on 12 November, 1912, and grew up on the Lower East Side speaking Yiddish, according to an interview in the Jerusalem Report in 1999. The first library of which he became a member was a branch in the Bronx.

After City College, he devised puzzles and puzzle contests for newspapers. During the Second World War, he cracked Japanese secret codes for the army, then returned to puzzles.

He was a founder of the American Cryptogram Association and in 1976 published An Annotated Bibliography of Cryptography, still used by experts. He was a champion scrabble player and wrote a scholarly article about the game’s lexicography.

After a heart attack in his early 80’s, Shulman gave beloved possessions to the New York Public Library. Gifts included a primer from Colonial America, 20,000 century-old postcards and Bowery Boys novels the library did not have. He earlier donated his cryptography collection, including a book about secret writing from 1518.

His mentor at the library was Norbert Pearlroth, a famed researcher for Ripley’s Believe It or Not!. However, Shulman later came to view him as less than rigorous.

"Instead of believing it," he said in an interview in 1999. "I believed it not."

Shulman never married; indeed, he made it clear he had scant time for his only relatives, two nieces who tried to stop him from giving his treasures to the library. "I hate to say it, but your relatives can be predators," he said in the 1999 interview.

Shulman always insisted that the persnickety pickiness he exemplified rates among the supreme virtues.

"What difference does it make?" he sputtered in an interview in 1989. "Why, the same difference as being literate or illiterate, accurate or inaccurate, telling the truth or spreading yarns."

 
 
 

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