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American Speech 77.4 (2002) 370-382

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DARE, History, and the Texture of the Entry

Michael Adams
Albright College

The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE 1985-) is an adventurous experiment in historical lexicography. "A dictionary can be regarded as a text conveying information," writes Bo Svensén. "It does not present the material in a connected, coherent sequence, but divided into thousands of short chapters" (1993, 2). In historical dictionaries, those chapters (the entries) carefully arrange facts about their words' histories; but they also constitute histories or (somewhat) narrative explanations of phenomena in the world, the series of events, and the utterances of words. Each historical dictionary has its own mode of telling about the words it includes. DARE's mode is far more radically historical than one might expect based on experience with other historical dictionaries. Its entries account not only for their words' histories, but also for the history of inquiry into those words; in effect, DARE's entries are not only history, but historiography, and their character sharply distinguishes DARE from any other historical dictionary. Comparison of DARE's mode of telling about words with those of other historical dictionaries not only celebrates its unique accomplishment but helps to clarify what we mean when we say that such dictionaries are HISTORICAL.

Historical dictionaries account, in some fashion not quite precisely defined, for the historical development of the terms entered in them. Typically, entries in such dictionaries provide etymologies, list attested forms of the word in question, and more or less copiously illustrate usage by means of quotations culled from various texts of various periods. These elements constitute the diachronic character of the historical dictionary, which also, of course, defines the words entered and analyzes senses, as any synchronic dictionary would also do.

One might conclude, then, that the history to which the historical in historical dictionary refers is a property of the word defined, not a property of the entry or of the dictionary. It does not suggest that either the entry or the dictionary is a history, a narrative that explains the phenomenon of the word; the entry might be seen as the point d'appui from which a history of the word could be written, just as in the dictionary repose facts from which one might compose a language's history. The distinction drawn here is not new: [End Page 370] thoughtful people have insisted on it as an intellectual defense against the inveterate polysemy of history since Greek (Zgusta 1992).

At first glance, calling a dictionary entry a history strains credulity. Certainly, neither an entry nor a whole dictionary qualifies as a Foucauldian "master narrative." For that sort of history, one must turn to a work like Mencken's The American Language, masterly enough when it was first published in 1919, but then revised and expanded, and then further expanded into two supplementary volumes (1945, 1948), all in the interest of providing the most complete possible narrative account of American English. Generally, when we speak of a history, we mean a narrative of this kind. As Paul Veyne (1971, 4) suggests, "History is an account of events . . . it is a narration. . . . Like the novel, history sorts, simplifies, organizes, fits a century into a page."

But one recognizes immediately that many attributes of history apply as well to the historical dictionary entry: it, too, sorts, simplifies, organizes, and often fits many centuries into a fraction of a column. And many of Veyne's other prescriptions for history describe such entries. For instance, Veyne believes that history accounts for events, and while a history of France might treat an event like Napoleon's coronation, the notion of "event" need not exclude a semantic or grammatical event, like the development of a new sense or a functional shift. "An event," Veyne insists, "stands out against a background of uniformity" (5), and even though lexicographers choose to include quotations in an entry partly because they typify usage, they also choose exemplary quotations, those that best represent the events in a word's development. "A history book is a little...


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