April 14, 2015

The Dictionary of American Regional English is in a dilly of a pickle



The interactive map of DARE.

We are wample-cropped to hear the Dictionary of American Regional English may be discontinued in June. American dialect executive secretary Allan Metcalf calls this project “greatest American lexicographical project of the latter 20th century.” 

This whoopensacker of a project was founded in the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1963. The university has reduced the project to a scrimption of its original budget, reduced to a meager 20%. This sum will only fund one part-time person to wrap up the project.

There’s a crowdfunding campaign that has already raised $4K. But–uff-da!–the goal is $425K.

Begun in 1963, the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) compiles entries from novels, newspapers, and extensive questionnaires–typically over 1,600 questions!–to document the way language in the U.S. is geographically distinct, and how has changed over time. The most recent volume, published in 2012, includes data from 1,002 communities.

Katy Steinmetz writes in Time:

Creating a record of American speech is just like preserving pop art paintings or Prairie School architecture or early jazz recordings—except that it’s much easier to forget that fragments of our language are historical objects. A child may yell “all-ee all-ee oxen free” for all of their youth and never stop to think why they said it or whether people will continue to say it after them.

Mark Johnson of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel argues that there are legal and medical applications for this dictionary:

A couple of months ago, Douglas Kelling, a 68-year-old internist in Concord, N.C., was examining an 80-year-old woman when the patient turned to him and said: “Doc, how’s my ticklebox?” The baffled doctor asked what she meant by “ticklebox.” “Well, my heart, course,” the woman answered, resolving this particular moment of confusion.

In almost 40 years of practice, the doctor has heard patients use the terms “Smiling Mighty Jesus,” for spinal meningitis, “fireballs of the uterus” for fibroids of the uterus and “old-timer’s disease” for Alzheimer’s disease.

“And that’s just a small sample of the phrases I’ve run into,” Kelling says.

The importance of recording local terms for ailments recently made headlines in Harvard Medical, when a patient said he’d “lost his nature” and turned out to be suffering from erectile disfunction.

Chief editor Joan Houston Hall says that she’d like medical terms to be available digitally, ideally as an app. “The language changes, and we want to keep up with it,” she told Amanda Katz of the Boston Globe. Hall has been working on this project for forty years, and says she is considering staying on at a reduced salary to tie up loose ends.

The upscuddle in Wisconsin papers may not be enough to save this project, or the leximes Hall and her colleagues have worked decades to record. In the remaining months, they’ll let the staff move on and hold out hope for a rich logophile to take notice. Fair winds and following seas, Dictionary of American Regional English.


Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.