Educated at Columbia University (where he restricted himself to Russian, German, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit and Polish), Urdang was a linguistics lecturer at New York University from 1956 to 1961. Although he never wrote the dissertation that would have completed his graduate degree, the Random House Dictionary filled the void amply: "He always said he considered the Random House dictionary his dissertation," said Nicole Urdang.
Urdang made his debut in the publishing industry as an associate editor in the dictionary department at Funk & Wagnalls and developed a vast vocabulary. Not averse to making fun of his profession, he wrote in an introduction to one of his books:
This is not a succedaneum for satisfying the nympholepsy of nullifidians. Rather it is hoped that the haecceity of this enchiridion of arcane and recondite sesquipedalian items will appeal to the oniomania of an eximious Gemeinschaft whose legerity and sophrosyne, whose Sprachgefühl and orexis will find more than fugacious fulfillment among its felicific pages.