But Cassidy was not a man to be daunted by such trivial problems. Together with a colleague, one of his students named Audrey Duckert, he wrote a brand-new questionnaire for use out in the field; he received a grant from the U.S. Office of Education to pay for a fleet of vans—the famous Word Wagons—that he deemed were necessary for visiting the farther-flung corners of the Republic; he worked out a battle plan and timetable for this immense gathering-in; and he calculated a system of subsistence payments for a team of some eighty volunteers, graduate students and a few professors, missionaries who shared his zeal for what he saw as a truly holy calling.
In the fall of 1965 he then formally set these teams to work, a-hunting and a-gathering, initially by waving them out of the parking lot in downtown Madison, and from there onto the streets and back roads of the country. What the teams would bring back over the following five years is a quite extraordinary record—a record that lays out the amazing wealth of a hitherto almost unknown American language.
Three improbably large numbers are critical to any appreciation of the linguistic component of the study, and what it eventually accomplished: 1,002, 2,777, and 1,847. The Madison volunteers fanned out to 1,002 carefully chosen communities (selected for being generally stable, old, and variegated) across the country. There they interviewed, and at length, 2,777 people—most of them middle-aged or older, assumed thereby to have a greater familiarity with the lexical history of their communities, and the greater proportion of them (chosen for the same reason) long-term residents. And—though one may gasp at the impertinence, the cheek, the brass neck, and the chutzpah of it all—the eighty youngsters who made the study presented each of these 2,777 old-timers in the 1,002 chosen communities with a list of no fewer than 1,847 questions. Three hundred twenty-five pages worth of interrogation—no census taker or pollster or focus-group leader of today could hardly hold a candle to the soldiers in Fred Cassidy’s dictionary army.
With 1,847 questions, each interview would take as much as a week to complete—a testament, perhaps, to the lazier tempo of the times, or else to the pertinacity of those whom Fred Cassidy selected to do his lexicographic heavy lifting. Nearly a century before, James Murray asked interested volunteer readers around the world to assist in the creation of the OED by jotting down what they read, maybe one quote at a time. Seventeen years later, Joseph Wright had as many as six hundred volunteers occasionally noting words and expressions they heard in their communities. Fred Cassidy, on the other hand, a taskmaster extraordinaire, had all of his volunteers go out and ask questions, on tape, day after day after day, and then transcribe the answers. In addition to respondents’ answers, the volunteers also recorded most of them reading a famous all-the-phonemes-there-are test story called “Arthur the Rat,” the results of which have been used for the past half century for the study of variations in regional accents. The fieldwork was Herculean.
Herculean, that is, in the performance of the lexical work alone One shouldn’t forget the nonlexical difficulties the fieldworkers might have encountered too. This being the late sixties, the time of Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, My Lai, and the Watts riots, suspicion, hostility, and violence abounded—and not a few of the volunteers, especially the shaggier-haired and more obviously intrusive and inquisitive, were chased out of town, threatened, and even arrested, accused of stirring things up and fomenting trouble.
When seen in full, Cassidy’s 325-page book of questions does not merely inspire awe. It also has a kind of poetry about it, the interrogations evidently made to blend lexical efficiency with literary elegance. They run from simple temporal inquiries, like Question A1—What do you call the time in the early morning before the sun comes into sight? to the fill-in-the-blank Question 0047b, a query that relates, improbably, to the sweating of horses: They wouldn’t have caught cold if they hadn’t_____(so much.) In between are all manner of word-inquiries. Most are slyly innocent, others are more blatantly invasive.
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