The five-thousand-page, five-volume book, known formally as the Dictionary of American Regional English and colloquially just as DARE, is now at last fully complete. The first volume appeared in 1985: it listed tens of thousands of geographically specific dialect words, from tall flowering plants known in the South as “Aaron’s Rod,” to a kind of soup much favored in Wisconsin, made from duck’s blood, known as “czarina.” The next two volumes appeared in the 1990s, the fourth after 2000, so assiduously planned and organized by Cassidy as to be uninterrupted by his passing. The fifth and final volume, the culminating triumph of this extraordinary project, is being published this March—it offers up regionalisms running alphabetically from “slab highway” (as concrete-covered roads are apparently still known in Indiana and Missouri) to “zydeco,” not the music itself, but a kind of raucous and high-energy musical party that is held in a long swathe of villages arcing from Galveston to Baton Rouge.
“Aaron’s rod” to “zydeco”—between these two verbal bookends lies an immense and largely hidden American vocabulary, one that surely, more than perhaps any other aspect of society, reveals the wonderfully chaotic pluribus out of which two centuries of commerce and convention have forged the duller reality of the unum. Which was precisely what Cassidy and his fellow editors sought to do—to capture, before it faded away, the linguistic coat of many colors of this immigrant-made country, and to preserve it in snapshot, in part for strictly academic purposes, in part for the good of history, and in part, maybe, on the off chance that the best of the lexicon might one day be revived.
The idea of creating a dictionary of regional dialect English was born across the Atlantic, in England itself. DARE’s fons et origo was the serial publication, commenced in 1896, of the English Dialect Dictionary. The hero in the story of this six-volume work, now seldom seen but still revered by professional lexicographers, is a little-remembered Yorkshireman named Joseph Wright, a kindly, bearded, country-accented book collector who had fought his way out of utter poverty (his father was a sometime wool weaver and quarryman from a Yorkshire hamlet inappositely named Idle) to become a professor in comparative philology at Oxford.
Wright, who had studied German and mathematics before obtaining a PhD in philology, came to believe that dialect, just like its kissing cousin slang, was a key component of any language as vital as English. To preserve it, to note it, to promote and employ it was a noble project, one that could help keep the mainstream language into which it often percolated flourishing and healthy. It was to this end that he was set when a group called the English Dialect Society handed him—shortly after he had joined Oxford’s philology department—roughly a million yellowing paper slips, weighing in all nearly a ton. Each bore a dialect word or phrase that had been painstakingly gathered, from Cornwall to the Shetlands, by members of the tiny army of bespectacled and corduroyed enthusiasts who made up the Society.
Professor Wright, his mind unboggled by the scale, swiftly resolved that he would likely need to accumulate a million more slips to forge the dictionary he had in mind. But there was a problem: even in those more enlightened Victorian times, when projects of monumental scale—like the OED and the Dictionary of National Biography—were begun without regard for cost, no British publisher would agree to take this particular project on. So Wright decided to assume responsibility for financing it himself. For the next fourteen years he slaved singlemindedly with a team of assistants in a room provided by Clarendon, Oxford’s press (no doubt with, in Oxford dialect, his oak sported—his door shut firm).
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