The scene is a mysterious one, beguiling, thrilling, and, if you didn’t know better, perhaps even a bit menacing. According to the time-enhanced version of the story, it opens on an afternoon in the late fall of 1965, when without warning, a number of identical dark-green vans suddenly appear and sweep out from a parking lot in downtown Madison, Wisconsin. One by one they drive swiftly out onto the city streets. At first they huddle together as a convoy. It takes them only a scant few minutes to reach the outskirts—Madison in the sixties was not very big, a bureaucratic and academic omnium-gatherum of a Midwestern city about half the size of today. There is then a brief halt, some cursory consultation of maps, and the cars begin to part ways.
All of this first group of cars head off to the south. As they part, the riders wave their farewells, whereupon each member of this curious small squadron officially commences his long outbound adventure—toward a clutch of carefully selected small towns, some of them hundreds and even thousands of miles away. These first few cars are bound to cities situated in the more obscure corners of Florida, Oklahoma, and Alabama. Other cars that would follow later then went off to yet more cities and towns scattered evenly across every corner of every mainland state in America. The scene as the cars leave Madison is dreamy and tinted with romance, especially seen at the remove of nearly fifty years. Certainly nothing about it would seem to have anything remotely to do with the thankless drudgery of lexicography.
But it had everything to do with the business, not of illicit love, interstate crime, or the secret movement of monies, but of dictionary making. For the cars, which would become briefly famous, at least in the somewhat fame-starved world of lexicography, were the University of Wisconsin Word Wagons. All were customized 1966 Dodge A100 Sportsman models, purchased en masse with government grant money. Equipped for long-haul journeying, they were powered by the legendarily indestructible Chrysler Slant-Six 170-horsepower engine and appointed with modest domestic fixings that included a camp bed, sink, and stove. Each also had two cumbersome reel-to-reel tape recorders and a large number of tape spools.
The drivers and passengers who manned the wagons were volunteers bent to one overarching task: that of collecting America’s other language. They were being sent to more than a thousand cities, towns, villages, and hamlets to discover and record, before it became too late and everyone started to speak like everybody else, the oral evidence of exactly what words and phrases Americans in those places spoke, heard, and read, out in the boondocks and across the prairies, down in the hollows and up on the ranges, clear across the great beyond and in the not very long ago.
These volunteers were charged with their duties by someone who might at first blush seem utterly unsuitable for the task of examining American speech: a Briton, born in Kingston, of a Canadian father and a Jamaican mother: Frederic Gomes Cassidy, a man whose reputation—he died twelve years ago, aged ninety-two—is now about to be consolidated as one of the greatest lexicographers this country has ever known. Cassidy’s standing—he is now widely regarded as this continent’s answer to James Murray, the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary; Cassidy was a longtime English professor at the University of Wisconsin, while Murray’s chops were earned at Oxford—rests on one magnificent achievement: his creation of a monumental dictionary of American dialect speech, conceived roughly half a century ago, and over which he presided for most of his professional life.