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Fred Shapiro ’74

Yale librarian is master of quotations
April 20, 2010

Four years after graduating from MIT, Frank Shapiro had taken some time off from Harvard Law School when he rejoined the then-famous MIT Tiddlywinks Team and decided the game needed an official historian and lexicologist. Shapiro, who studied humanities and science at the Institute, assumed the position and soon discovered that the term tiddlywink had been used much earlier than the Oxford English Dictionary seemed to indicate. He wrote to the publisher and pointed out six such citations. The editors confirmed one of the examples and promised to include it in the dictionary’s next revision. Something clicked.

“Everything I did with words and quotations came after that,” says Shapiro, now a Yale librarian and lecturer in legal research at Yale Law School, who edited the Yale Book of Quotations. Six years in the making, the book meticulously catalogues noteworthy statements and traces their earliest uses. “This sort of work doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that is ‘MIT,’ Shapiro says, “but actually it is–the kind of precision and resourcefulness that’s necessary fits with the MIT education.”

After graduating from law school in 1980, Shapiro practiced general law briefly and then earned a master’s degree in library science at Catholic University in 1982. Since then, he has worked in research–and continued to contribute to the OED, as well as to the New York Times’ Freakonomics blog.

“The truth is, it’s changed a lot,” says Shapiro of his dictionary work. “There’s less a sense of discovery and accomplishment. It used to be that you’d go to a large library–you’d randomly pick up a book and open it to a random page and make a discovery. Now it’s the database that is doing the work.”

Shapiro and his wife, Jane, live in Bethany, CT, and have a son in college. The couple used to play a lot of word games, like Scrabble. But “I don’t play too much anymore,” Shapiro says, “because I had problems–I’d try to play words that weren’t in the Scrabble dictionary. Also,” he admits with a laugh, “I got obsessed with seven-letter words, and I would pass 10 times in a row until I could play them. That’s not the best strategy.”

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