Regional English dictionary closes in on ultimate milestone

March 23, 2009

by Brian Mattmiller

Meandering its merry way through new submissions such as “whiffle-minded,” “whirligust,” “whistle punk” and “williwags,” the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) project is now tantalizingly close to completing a mission more than four decades in the making.

[photo] Joan Hall

Joan Hall, senior scientist in the Department of English and chief editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), reviews index cards containing edited entries to be included in the fifth and final volume of DARE while working in the project’s office in Helen C. White Hall.

Photo: Jeff Miller

DARE, hailed by experts as “the high-water mark of American lexicography,” received a two-year, $295,000 boost from the National Science Foundation (NSF) this year that will help not only close the book on the fifth DARE volume —covering Si through Z —but lead the project into an influential second life as a digital, online resource.

In DARE parlance, you might say the project is “over the dog and will get over the tail, too.”

“It’s very exciting, but it doesn’t feel like the end,” says Joan Hall, chief editor of DARE, which is part of the Department of English. Hall notes that a sixth volume of supplementary data is in the offing, and the online version of DARE will provide a platform for continual expansion from both contemporary and historic sources.

DARE is a reference tool meant to capture not the homogenous whole of English found in conventional dictionaries, but the rich regional variety that has been spoken and written across America. One NSF reviewer put it this way: “From its inception, this project took seriously the principle that a language is, in fact, the sum of its parts, and its parts are dialects.”

The project began in 1965 as the brainchild of Frederic Cassidy, who served as chief editor of DARE until his death in 2000. Cassidy led extensive fieldwork from 1965–70 across the country, capturing through surveys and audio recordings a vast wealth of first-person detail on language variation. Those field findings have always been supported by print materials, but are now hugely supplemented by digital collections, especially as the Google Book Project opens an unprecedented window into historic books and public domain materials.

Volumes I-IV of the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) are pictured in Joan Hall’s office in Helen C. White Hall.

Photo: Jeff Miller

As interesting as Cassidy’s original vision for DARE are some of the applications that Cassidy could scarcely have imagined. “We assumed that teachers, linguists, librarians and journalists would be the primary users, in addition to people who just love to have dictionaries around,” Hall says. “But we’ve discovered that it’s useful in many other ways.”

For example, Hollywood has discovered DARE. A number of dialect coaches associated with American film and theater have used examples from DARE’s collection of 1,483 audio recordings to try to nail particular regional dialects. Actress Diane Keaton used DARE’s Mississippi tapes to practice for her role in the 1986 film “Crimes of the Heart.”

Medical doctors have joined doctors of linguistics in their use of DARE. Hall received a letter from a doctor in Maine who recounted a story from his first practice in Allenton, Pa. “One of his first patients came in and said, ‘Doc, I’ve been riftin’ and I’ve got jags in my leaders.’” The doctor looked the words up in DARE and found that “rifting” meant belching and that “jags in my leaders” translated to pain in tendons and ligaments. “Rift,” a Scots and northern English dialect term, is found mostly in Pennsylvania, while “leader” is especially common in the South Midland and the South.

Even more astonishing is DARE’s use as a tool for solving crime. Forensic linguist Roger Shuy, working on the Unabomber case in the 1990s, employed DARE to develop a complete cultural, religious and educational profile of the suspect, based on his voluminous manifesto. The profile proved to closely resemble convicted Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.

A number of dialect coaches associated with American film and theater have used examples from DARE’s collection of 1,483 audio recordings to try to nail particular regional dialects. Actress Diane Keaton used DARE’s Mississippi tapes to practice for her role in the 1986 film “Crimes of the Heart.”

In another case, Shuy helped solve a kidnapping and extortion case by using DARE. A child was abducted from her home, and a scrawled ransom note was left behind demanding $10,000. The letter read, in part: “Put (the money) in the green trash kan on the devil strip at the corner of 18th and Carlson. Don’t bring anybody along. No kops!”

Hall says that Shuy discerned a lot from the note, including that the “c” words were deliberately spelled with a “k” to suggest the suspect was uneducated. But the real kicker was “devil strip”: Turns out, according to DARE, that phrase describes “the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street,” commonly known in Madison as a terrace. Hall says “devil strip” is used almost solely in a well-defined triangle in Ohio between Youngstown, Cleveland and Akron. This piece of evidence helped along the case against one suspect, a relatively well-educated Akron native, who later confessed to the crime.

Although a critic once ribbed DARE for not “talking about anything between the navel and the knees,” the project does venture into some daring territory. For example, DARE investigates regional variation on terms for racial and ethnic slurs, and also included field questions about regional and folk terms for women’s breasts.

“Many people were very frank in their responses,” Hall says. “So we have many entries in the dictionary that are decidedly not politically correct, but they reflect the way people use language.”

That’s a big part of DARE’s power.

“We get a pretty good picture of our culture by looking at those things,” she says. “It’s a very interesting anthropological view of ourselves, through how we talk about others.”

The fact that DARE’s core survey data comes from mid-20th century is especially prescient. Senior citizens at that time were unique bridges to an old and new America, having lived before such milestones as the automobile, the radio, rural electrification and two world wars. “They lived through these incredible changes, but still remembered the old ways,” Hall says.

The dictionary has attracted some high-profile friends over the years, including nationally syndicated columnists William Safire and James J. Kilpatrick. During a financially tough period for the dictionary, Hall recalls one of Kilpatrick’s syndicated “Writer’s Art” columns about DARE concluding with this: “For any person who loves the English language and revels in its richness of idiom and word origin, (DARE) offers a cause worth supporting … If you can’t send a million, send something.”

For the next few weeks, Hall says, checks came pouring in through the mail.

The new NSF grant now represents more than two decades of continuous support from the federal agency. DARE also relies upon core funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, gifts from private foundations and donations from individuals.

For regional English buffs, here’s more on the first four terms in this story. “Whiffle-minded” is a Maine term for being fickle or vacillating; a “whirligust” is a North Carolina term for a whirlwind or dust devil; a “whistle punk” is a Pacific Northwest logging term for a person who controls the whistle on a donkey engine; and “williwags” is a New England term for tangled underbrush.