WNYC's Resident Man of Words, 1926-1929

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Long before language mavens Patricia T. O'Conner or Richard Lederer ever matched puns with Leonard Lopate, WNYC had Frank Horace Vizetelly (1864-1938).  Known in his day as the "Dean of Lexicographers," Vizetelly was a major force behind the Funk and Wagnalls Dictionary.  The etymologist, however, was not limited  to the discussion of words and their origins: on WNYC he covered a wide range of topics. Among his talks were "The Ant and Its Ways," "The Story of the Sneeze," and "The Story of the Garter." Before WNYC he was on WOR, and after WNYC he moved to WJZ and WABC.

In his obituary The New York Times wrote: "Alfred E. Smith's 'baloney dollars' could not swerve Dr. Vizetelly from 'bologna.' But he was quick to favor President Roosevelt's 'chisler,' which he said had attained dictionary rating in England in 1808.  He found 'whoopee' went back to A.D. 450, discovered imperfections in Noah Webster and dismissed 'okie-dokie,' as a moron's 'Yes.' "

In an address to broadcasters at CBS in 1931, Vizetelly said he loved the "delicate sweet dialect of New York, but wouldn't it jar you to be told that a good round grunt passes for American speech in New York?" He maintained, however, New York was not to be blamed, rather it was more indicative of the company one kept than it was American speech.[1]  A month later at the network the lexicographer said, "the man and the woman who 'think' cannot escape the conclusion that radio broadcasting is one of the most important of educational mediums we have and, in its ideal capacity, one of the best means by which to teach correct speech and pronunciation...Every announcer is under an ethical obligation to deliver his speeches correctly."[2]

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle's anonymous radio columnist in the 1920s was fond of WNYC's word maven, describing him as "a good-natured philosopher," "lover of good English" and "learned lexicographer." Regarding Vizetelly's June 3, 1926 talk on WNYC, the paper's radio man noted: "Course, low and vulgar words were severely condemned by the speaker, who defended their absence from the dictionary with which he is associated, and he declared emphatically that if he had the job to do over again, the eliminating machine would be used just as often as it was the first time." There's a touch of irony here, since Vizetelly's father, publisher Henry Vizetelly, was ruined by obscenity convictions stemming from his publication of the novels of Émile Zola.

[1] "Broadcasters Get Vizetelly's Tests," The New York Times, February 11, 1931, pg. 20.

[2] "Vizetelly Predicts New Language Here," The New York Times, March 11, 1931, pg. 36.