UW-Madison dictionary compiles weirdly wonderful regional idiosyncrasiesSome might celebrate with a shindy and others might hold a whindig or a wingding, but Joan Houston Hall just breathed a sigh of relief.
By: By Deborah Ziff, The Wisconsin State Journal, Superior Telegram
Some might celebrate with a shindy and others might hold a whindig or a wingding, but Joan Houston Hall just breathed a sigh of relief.
After five decades, UW-Madison's ambitious project to document the idiosyncrasies of American English reached both the zenith and "z" this month, said Hall, the editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE). Volume Sl to Z is now for sale from Harvard University Press. From aa (rough lava in Hawaii) to zydeco (dance music in Louisiana Creole culture), the dictionary spans five volumes and 60,000 words.
Frederic G. Cassidy started the project at UW-Madison in the 1960s to preserve and document the regional peculiarities of American English. He originally hoped it would be complete by 1976 in time for the nation's bicentennial, but the project proved far more cumbersome. The first volume wasn't finished until 1985.
"We all knew that American English varies from place to place, but nobody knew exactly how it differed," Hall said. "It was an attempt to find out just what those regions are and how they overlap and how they vary from one another."
Some 80 fieldworkers fanned out across the country from 1965 to 1970 to survey nearly 2,800 Americans about the words and phrases they use. The dictionary is continually updated with modern sayings, Hall said. The latest volume includes references from 2011.
Cassidy died in 2000 and Hall took over as editor.
Over the years, the dictionary proved useful to librarians, teachers, lawyers, doctors and general word-lovers, Hall said.
"It answers very weird questions that seem to come out of nowhere," she said.
For instance, news reporters were perplexed in 1993 when Bill Clinton made a seemingly cryptic comment: "He doesn't know me from Adam's off-ox."
Reporters called the DARE staff, who explained it was a phrase used west of the Appalachians meaning: He doesn't know me at all.
Another time, Hall said the DARE staff helped defend a mom-and-pop shop in Missouri that had "opry" in the name fight legal objections by the Grand Ole Opry. The dictionary's resources proved that opry was used in many places beyond the Grand Ole and it followed regular speech patterns that turned words ending in "a," like opera, into words ending in "y."
The dictionary's staff is now working on a sixth volume containing supplemental material. They also are in the process of converting the dictionary to digital form. Hall said they are expecting a September 2013 launch of the digital version.
The supplemental volume will provide additional information, like the fact that there are 364 words for being "thoroughly drunk" and 322 words for being "partly drunk." You can be dead drunk, plastered, pie-eyed, pickled, soused, zoned and three sheets to the wind, depending on where you live.
There also are lots of ways to say someone is really stupid, Hall said. You might say someone doesn't know enough to: come in out of the rain; lead a goose to water; bell a buzzard; carry guts to a bear; or pound sand down a rathole.
Hall said despite the fact that people across the U.S. now consume much of the same media, there still are thousands of words, phrases and pronunciations that differ from place to place.
"I don't believe there will ever be a truly homogenized language, which is what many people like to suggest," she said. "I think there will always be wonderful variety. It's partly because the kinds of words that vary are the words we use with our friends and our families... . They're the ones we use without even knowing we use them."
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