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Apr 07, 2009

Finally, a dictionary of American babble.

By Tara Kyle

A man walks into a grocery store asking for “dry land fish.” A patient complains of “dew poison.” A kidnapper asks for his $10,000 ransom to be placed in a trash can on the “devil’s strip.”
What’s a befuddled grocer, a new-in-town doctor or a captive’s puzzled family to do?
Until now, they’d have to hunt up a highly specialized linguist. Now they can get a copy of the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE).
There, the confused and simply curious can now discover that “dry land fish” is how you say “mushroom” in a very small part of Tennessee. “Dew poison” is the way someone in the South Appalachians explains that they’ve caught an itchy toe infection after walking barefoot in wet grass.
And nobody would call that patch of grass between the sidewalk and street a “devil’s strip” unless they come from Ohio, specifically around Akron, Cleveland and Youngston. That is how a forensic linguist helped solve one real-life kidnapping case.
“It’s very popular these days to talk about American English as being very homogenized because of the mobility of the population and the nature of the media,” says Joan Hall, DARE’s editor-in-chief. “But that’s not really true.”
Language fanatics can already peruse the majority of DARE’s findings, in the first four volumes, which were released in 1985, 1991, 1996 and 2002. But the final milestone is slated for 2010, when Volume V, covering Sl through Z, finally makes its debut.
Although American English is remarkably consistent compared to say, the linguistic variation in European languages, that still leaves room for many thousands of words and phrases that are specific to given geographic areas and incomprehensible
to outsiders.
American dialects are especially clearly defined along the early settlement areas of the East Coast. But geography alone does not account for all variations in American dialects. Factors such as class, education level, past migration patterns and ethnic kinship can also play a role.
Unlike slang, which is typically attached to a certain time period and not to geographic boundaries, these variations in dialect have staying power, particularly in relatively isolated areas, such as mountain valleys and islands.
The creation of DARE has been a labor of love for a small Wisconsin-based team since 1965. Under the guidance of deceased founder and program father figure Frederic Gomes Cassidy, some 82 field workers scattered across the country, armed with 1,800-question surveys.
Over a six-year period, they sought respondents who seldom traveled outside of the region of their birth. The best candidates could trace roots in the area to great-grandparents.
Respondents also had to be patient: filling out a single survey took several hours of work every day for a week.
That took creative field workers. In some cases, two or more locals collaborated to finish a single survey, with one person listing local words related, for example, to furniture, health and education, and another covering fishing, hunting and insects.
In other cases, field workers bargained, offering to help a survey respondent pick vegetables, wash a floor—whatever it took. Sharon Huizenga, a graduate student who did both office and field work for DARE between 1967 and 1970, remembers showing her gratitude by painting a roof, hanging tobacco and peeling apples.
“Most people were very proud of their hometown, and were excited that someone took an interest,” says Huizenga, who traveled for DARE through Kentucky’s northern mountains, agricultural center and southern flatlands, as well as the small towns of Virginia’s hill country and tidewater region.
Occasionally she would enter an area where locals were especially suspicious of outsiders and cars with out-of-state plates. In these situations, she would seek out a community leader such a police chief or school leader to vouch for her, winning them over with her belief in the value of the project as a way to celebrate and show respect for America’s diverse cultures.
While the completion of DARE was originally tied to America’s bicentennial, an excess of data and the limitations of early computers (which were much more adept at working with numbers than words) contributed to years of delay.
So, too, did funding. Although the DARE project is housed at the University of Wisconsin, staffers do not receive salaries from the school. Instead, they rely on grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation, private foundations and word-loving private donors.
“That’s the way we’ve limped along from one volume to the next,” says Hall. “There have been many times when we’ve thought, ‘my god, we don’t have enough money to get through the next six weeks.’”
Although the project now has a targeted end date, they are still searching for additional funds to make it to the end.
While members of DARE’s team may have been drawn to the work in part because of their love of language, they hope that others will recognize that the project’s value is more than academic. As Huizenga puts it, “I believed [when I started] and still do that local culture and local heritage is a part of our strength as Americans.”


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