Most slang is temporary, and vanishes utterly. Some large proportion remains employed as slang alone. But a sufficient percentage still makes its way, year upon year, into the commonly written and read versions of English—a happenstance that makes its study and recording exciting and valuable, a vital component of the joy of English. By contrast the five volumes of DARE seem more like tombstones, works of great scholarship and high purpose, but at the same time a record of a language that is slowly being preserved in amber, while dying out from under-use and fading away, as with all the “withals” and “prithees” and “zounds” and “odds bodkins” of former times. This does not render the five great books as being without purpose—they are read avidly by actors and acting coaches in Hollywood when making movies set in the Ozarks or ancient Idaho; lawyers swear by it, as dreadful crimes have been solved by the forensic study of ransom notes, DARE to hand; and literate cooks like to trace the origins of dishes from the names of spices and plant types recorded in these columns. But all of such study and use is related to the English of yesterday—little of it is relevant to the use of English today, and most certainly none of it has any significant resonance in the language that we are ever likely to employ tomorrow.
Not too far away from Madison, down in Hyde Park, Illinois, there have been recent celebrations for the completion of another, similarly monumental project of lexicography. The University of Chicago’s Assyrian Dictionary was begun in 1921, and was completed ninety years later. It records in fine detail just how those in Mesopotamia wrote and read on clay tablets four thousand years ago. The completion of the work in the winter of 2011 was greeted with much academic joy, and with the exchanging of accolades and laurel wreaths.
And as with the Assyrian volumes so, one might say not entirely unfairly, with Fred Cassidy’s Dictionary of American Regional English. A monument, a memorial, a piece of work both magisterial and majestic that someone, somewhere, was one day bound to undertake. So to all who take pleasure from the complex mechanics of human communication: let us rejoice that someone did indeed undertake this gigantic task, and recorded so fascinating a morsel of American linguistic history—and that they did so happily, without anyone having the temerity to ask or to wonder at the reason why.
Image: Fred Cassidy and fieldworkers Reino Maki and Ben Crane standing in front of one of DARE's "Word Wagons." (UW-Madison Archives)
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