Check out Kopalinski

Alicja Dolowska

Wladyslaw Kopalinski would have finished 100 years on 14 November. ‘Diennik Polski’, which appears in New York, ordered an article from Prof. Jan Miodek on the occasion of the jubilee of this outstanding lexicographer, encyclopaedist, translator and writer. But Kopalinski did not live till the jubilee.
He died in Warsaw after a long and hard struggle with his illness. Suddenly all those who grew up reading his dictionaries began to wonder how they could live without Kopalinski. Died? You cannot do that to your readers. He made Polish people accustomed to his dictionaries for a whole epoch. He made them addicted to him. They used to say, ‘Don’t you know that? Check out Kopalinski!’

‘I hope that Kopalinski would never die.’

He was a phenomenon. His dictionaries store huge amounts of information, which he himself prepared arduously. Can you image that he did not use a computer and a typewriter? He prepared the entries by writing the explanations and notes on cards and ordering them in boxes. He extended the bases of his entries and included computer entries as well.
‘I had a completely certain hope that Wladyslaw Kopalinski would never die and he would be regularly writing his books’, wrote one of the internauts.
‘Slownik wyrazow obcych i zwrotow obcojezycznych’ [The Dictionary of Words and Phrases of Foreign Origin] was first published in 1967 and had 25 reprints and revisions. It has accompanied pupils, students and all who are hungry for knowledge. People waited for his next works. And they were published. ‘Slownik wydarzen, pojec i legend XX wieku’ [The Dictionary of Events, Concepts and Legends of the 20th Century], ‘Slownik przypomnien [The Dictionary of Reminders], constantly revised ‘Slownik symboli’ [The Dictionary of Symbols], ‘Slownik eponimow czyli wyrazow odimiennych’ [The Dictionary of Eponyms], ‘Leksykon watkow milosnych’ [The Lexicon of Love Themes], ‘Przygody slow i przyslow’ [The Adventures of Words and Proverbs], or the first editions of ‘Slownik mitow i tradycji kultury’ [The Dictionary of Myths and Cultural Traditions], which were so difficult to get and for which Kopalinski received The Culture Award in 1985, granted by the reactivated Solidarity.

Writing itself does not make someone a writer

He received many awards in his long life but in spite of the trophies he was a humble man. He said, ‘I am not a writer. Writing itself does not make someone a writer. Accountants write as well.’ Did he say so because his first literary attempt was unsuccessful? His socialist realist play ‘Baska’ [Barbara] was criticised so he felt much secure as a translator of English literature. In the first post-war years he was the artistic director of the Polish Radio, then he was the director of the Czytelnik Publishing House. His articles were appreciated and published in ‘Zycie Warszawy’ for a long time. They also appeared as collections. His dictionaries testified to his literary talent. In his descriptions of events, customs, myths, images drawn from the Polish and ancient and even modern European traditions he applied the fundamental journalist’s principle ‘firstly do not bore people.’ You read his dictionaries with admiration. They instruct and widen your knowledge, help you understand and name the reality, get to know the Mediterranean culture, civilisation and history. During the years of the coarse Polish People’s Republic he cleared a path to Europe for readers, helping them to overcome the barrier of ignorance. He enriched their language, explained various phenomena and meanings of the words we did not know. He helped people enter into dialogues so that, referring to Norwid’s term, ‘they gave proper words to things’. That ‘digging out’ in knowledge, in the layers of erudition, was his great life passion. I think that his youth dream to popularise culture in the society aspiring to social advance was the mission, which he could fulfil through his dictionaries. He said, ‘passive consumption of culture from the radio or television will not cause miracles’, familiarity with culture involves a lot of trouble and active participation. You can recommend Kopalinski’s dictionaries to those who want to understand the full meanings of linguistic terms. They cannot be overestimated. Additionally, Kopalinski wrote his dictionaries in a vivid way, knowing that language constantly changed.

From word to word

Prof. Miodek compared him to Samuel Linde (1771-1847). Janusz Odrowaz-Pieniazek, a specialist in literature and the director of the Adam Mickiewicz Museum of Literature, compared him to Wiktor Gomulicki (1909-2006) who had similar memory and knowledge. ‘Kopalinski is an extraordinary figure because of his paintaking work and his ability to adjust meanings to modern times in his dictionaries’, stresses Mr Odrowaz-Pieniazek. He is sure that other specialists will continue Kopalinski’s work as the language undergoes constant changes. ‘They will do that collectively and will not put the cards in shoeboxes but they will use computers that make work easier. ‘Life goes on’, says Mr Odrowaz-Pieniazek, admitting that Kopalinski was phenomenal. The last book of the Master will be published soon. He worked on it till the end of his life. Its title is ‘Od slowa do slowa’ [From Word to Word]. A certain epoch has ended. The people and values without which life and the surrounding world get harder and more difficult to understand are slowly disappearing. What a pity.

"Niedziela" 45/2007

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
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