What joking names do you have for an alarm clock? For a toothpick? For a container for kitchen scraps? Or an indoor toilet? Or women’s underwear? When a woman divides her hair into three strands and twists them together, you say she is_____her hair? What words do you have to describe people’s legs if they’re noticeably bent, or uneven, or not right? What do you call the mark on the skin where somebody has sucked it hard and brought blood to the surface?
There are questions about the words used locally to describe loitering, getting splinters, sleeping late, staring open-mouthed, beating someone up. Fred Cassidy and his team wanted to know all about health and sickness, children’s games, religion, smoking and liquor, entertainment, emotional states, friendship, school-going, exclamations (What do you shout in these parts to drive away a dog, a child, a fly?), different ways of saying “uptown” and “downtown,” the names of the sounds that gas makes within a hungry person’s stomach, and for the ruder noises made when it emerges from either end of the alimentary canal.
The inquiry seemed to cover every imaginable topic—love and marriage, loose bowels, gossips, students, fruit, industrial plants, insects, flowers, scolds—except that there appears to be, in those more academically prudish times, no sex whatsoever. The names that were discovered around the nation for the giving of a vigorous kiss are to be found, for sure; and the various names for a marriage hurriedly arranged because a child is on the way, are listed by region also. But as to what are the various names for the act that brought the child into being in the first place—of that Fred Cassidy’s questionnaire, and so his eventual dictionary, are memorably silent.
The Word Wagons went everywhere—from Blaine to Key West, Eastport to San Diego, and to inhabited Alaska, even. Those who undertook the odysseys interviewed all manner of what would be called “informants”—the first on the immense eventual list (each identified only by code) being a sixty-one-year-old black maid in Jasper, Alabama, the 2,777th a seventy-one-year old white “farm woman” in Cottage Grove, Wisconsin. All apparently sat patiently and tolerantly through the rigors of their questioning. And though their names may be long kept secret, their names of their hometowns, when cached together, make the purest poetry too: Tangier, Virginia; Honey Brook, Pennsylvania; Vevay, Indiana; Snowflake, Arizona: who could not but exult in this vast tapestry of difference, seen even in the town names alone?
It took five years to compile the information and send it all back to Madison—the completed forms, the annotated and transcribed tapes, the spiral-backed field notebooks, the punch cards into which the geographical, statistical, and frequency data were all siphoned using the University’s room-sized UNIVAC computer. And then Cassidy and his staff of lexicographers—including the current chief editor, Joan Hall, who has lived with the project for most of her professional life—took over and got down to their allotted tasks.
The work of these deskbound editors now became more Sisyphean than Herculean. They started with letter “A” (a point worth making, since the OED’s Third Edition was actually started at the letter “M”). “On to Z” soon became their watchword (and was reportedly even engraved on Fred Cassidy’s tombstone). These clever and dedicated worker-bees patiently drew on all the computer data, they read and parsed the notebooks, they consulted immense libraries of patois and vernacular and consulted scores of earlier dialect dictionaries, and they then patiently and with scrupulous attention to detail listed in alphabetical order, with headings for etymology, orthography, pronunciation, and regional frequency, and with illustrative quotations arranged by date, all of the discovered dialect lexemes, lemmae, and phrases—recording in print such delights as “blueweed,” “williwag,” “Adam’s housecat,” “podunk,” “dropped egg,” “baby carriage,” “beau dollar,” “blind pig.” Any word offered with certainty by the informants—no matter how arcane it might have seemed—went in to the published vocabulary: “angledog,” “bungalow apron,” “brodie,” “chagalag,” all America’s topographically distinct and regionally generated words were duly recorded, listed, and entered.
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