He illustrated the hundred thousand headwords that he ultimately cobbled together from the slips and elsewhere in printed books—dialect words from the various regions of England, from Scotland and Ireland, and even some American words that had made their way, ship-borne, all the way back to Britain (such as “to snub,” an American-made reworking of the melancholy verb “to sob”)—with no fewer than half a million quotations, filling five thousand printed pages in doing so. It was a signal triumph of lexical dedication. And to cap it all: on the day that his first volume was finally published, Wright formally proposed marriage to a former student of his who had in later years become the project’s chief secretary. Small wonder, with such achievements to his name, that he and Mrs. Wright were widely declared the happiest couple in all of Oxford.
The idea of making a fully formed dictionary of America’s various dialect words came soon after the EDD was finished in 1905. The American Dialect Society had been formed in 1889, and just as in Britain, its enthusiasts had been wandering, chatting, listening, reading—and capturing unfamiliar words and pinning them, spatchcocked and anatomized, onto index cards. From time to time there were lists published in the ADS journal, Dialect Notes, but depressions and wars and the multiplicity of distractions to which even students of the lexicon are prey meant there was a somewhat haphazard, catch-as-catch-can approach to collecting the vast panoply of dialect words with which time, geography, and a whole-world immigrant population had so amply gifted America.
This clearly wasn’t good enough for the unrestrained ambition of Fred Cassidy. After studying at Oberlin and the University of Michigan he had settled in Wisconsin, playing the spider at the middle of the country’s linguistic web. He had already displayed a fascination with American regionalisms, publishing in 1947 a slim book on the place names around Madison (where there were towns with names like Mazomanie, Blue Mounds, and Black Earth). A questionnaire he had sent out in 1948 to thousands by mail from Madison, asking about slang usage in the rural communities of Wisconsin, was being seen as a model of its kind, a signal success. And by the late sixties, he was well on the way to making a name for himself: consolidating his advancing reputation, his Dictionary of Jamaican English (with the etymologies of rather daring new words like “ganja” and “dreadlocks,” and some thousands of others besides) would be winning glowing reviews on its publication in 1967.
In 1962, however, Cassidy had begun to badger the ADS. Could they not, he asked (and then kept on asking), initiate a great dictionary project too, a project that would do for America what the EDS had done for Britain? It took a while for his pleas to be answered, but in 1963 the ADS leadership agreed. And then, in pondering how best to go about creating such a massive masterwork, the Society came swiftly to confirm what Cassidy already suspected: that he, Cassidy, was the best possible candidate to spearhead the effort. He had sufficient wood, as the Jamaicans like to say, to create the very dictionary which America so badly needed. However, it was far from an easy project to begin. Aside from the lists published in the various pamphlets and journals of the ADS, there was precious little material to use as fire starter. Cassidy had no two-thousand-pound benison of yellowed word-slips bestowed upon him. Most of the data for his great dictionary would have to be assembled anew. But just like James Murray, who famously worked under the OED’s guiding principle that to collect all English words, all English writing had to be read, Cassidy decided to think big. To collect all American regional speech, all American language had to be listened to and recorded, and all American regions had to be visited. Such a monumental work would take time, people—and money.
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