- Dictionary of American Regional English
With this fifth volume, the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) completes its mission of assembling a comprehensive collection of American regional vocabulary. This volume opens with slab (‘a concrete road’, mainly in the central Midwest) and ends with zydeco (‘dance music’, originally Louisiana Creole). In format and girth, Vol. 5 matches its four precursors. That might seem like an unremarkable fact—more remarkable, you might think, if it did not match them—but the time span from the first to the fifth volume saw cataclysmic changes in publishing. Huge, hardbound reference tomes like this one virtually became extinct. Happily, Belknap Press, having committed itself to the format, elected to stick with it to the end.
The first DARE volume (A–C) was published 27 years ago, in 1985. That was the year that Macintosh and IBM got serious about putting a computer in every household. From that moment, digitization began changing access to knowledge. DARE published volumes 2 to 4 (D–H in 1991, I–O in 1996, P–Sk in 2002) before its impact became inescapable. In the Preface to Vol. 5 (p. ix), the editors admit that “the [End Page 464] explosion of digital resources during the last decade” delayed the final volume, but it also enhanced it with fuller evidence, greater geographic range, and more precise dating. A digital version of the collection is promised for next year.
Now that it has reached completion, it is appropriate to pay homage to DARE, so far as space allows, as one of the lexicographical monuments of its day. Its gestation took decades. The American Dialect Society (ADS) at its inception in 1889 singled out a dialect dictionary as one of its primary goals. With that in mind, their journals, originally Dialect Notes and since 1925 American Speech, always included a section on regional words, and since the 1970s the ADS newsletter has published DARE queries. (The front matter of Vol. 5 acknowledges more than 5,000 contributors, myself included, to these resources.)
Actual work on the dictionary finally started when Frederic G. Cassidy took charge in 1962. Cassidy had worked on dictionaries of Middle English and Early Modern English at Michigan as a graduate student, and on Jamaican English and Wisconsin regionalisms as professor of English at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He viewed the ADS inaction as a kind of turpitude (though that is not a word he actually used, as far as I know; for biographical details and a judicious appreciation, see Hall 2000). Cassidy’s first move was to design a lexical questionnaire with suitable scope for surveying all fifty states. He had a prototype in the questionnaire he had designed for Wisconsin with his graduate student Audrey R. Duckert (1927–2007), who later served as adjunct editor of DARE. Eighty fieldworkers were dispatched to a thousand communities distributed proportionally according to the population of the states. Data-gathering was finished in 1970, and the next decades were taken up with merging field elicitations (over two million of them) and historical documents into the lucid, verifiable, coherent, alphabetized chunks that make up the dictionary.
This chronology may seem tedious by twenty-first century standards—eight years for fieldwork, 15 more before publishing A–C, and 27 more to get to Z. It was, in fact, pretty efficient in the days before the worldwide web. But the 50-year span naturally took its toll. Fred Cassidy turned over the editorship to Joan Houston Hall in 1990, after retiring (obligatorily) from his professorship in 1973. He kept his office and worked on the files daily into his eighties, and sporadically until his death at 92 in 2000. Hall and her staff have been unstinting in their praise for their mentor.
The most innovative and idiosyncratic contribution of Cassidy’s lexicography is the DARE cartogram. It is described in the front matter of every DARE volume (Vol. 5, p. xxxx) thus: “The computer-generated map is deliberately distorted so that the...