Search Results for: Dictionary of American Regional English


Continuing my exhilarated exploration of The Oxford History of English Lexicography, I would like to report on chapter 9, “Major American Dictionaries” by Sidney I. Landau. I thought I had a fairly good grasp of the subject, but I had barely heard of Joseph Worcester (1784–1865), Webster’s chief competitor and one of Landau’s heroes:

Worcester has included [in his Universal and Critical Dictionary of the English Language (1846)] a number of lengthy usage notes of considerable interest. For example, under rather he includes an extended discussion of rather and sooner, and discusses alternative pronunciations of the former in a most sensitive way, linking a given pronunciation or stress pattern with a particular meaning in a particular social situation. Again, he observes that in Southern states, to raise is to bring up, as ‘The place in which he was raised’, citing Jefferson. Thus Worcester demonstrates a high degree of sophistication in discussing regionally restricted usages as well as usages dependent on social contexts at a time when such information was hardly provided in American dictionaries….

[In his Dictionary of the English Language (1860)] Worcester disputes Horne Tooke’s argument that each word has but one meaning and cites a number of common verbs such as get and turn to show the impracticability of such an argument. ‘The original or etymological meaning of many words has become obsolete, and they have assumed a new or more modern meaning; many which retain their etymological meaning have other meanings annexed to them; many have both a literal and a metaphorical meaning, and many both a common and a technical meaning,—all which need explanation’ (pp. iv-v). Such an analysis of how meanings change could hardly be improved on today….

Worcester never produced another dictionary and died in 1865. Like Webster, he was extraordinarily productive, not only editing the dictionaries described here but compiling many other valuable reference works in geography and biography, most of them for students. He is a major figure in American lexicography and in any just appraisal of lexicographical quality must be reckoned Webster’s equal. The only arena in which he proved deficient was in commercial success.

There is an extended discussion of the Century Dictionary, a famous landmark in lexicography, beginning “In the history of American lexicography, The Century Dictionary is a dictionary sui generis. There had been nothing like it before and there has been nothing like it since.” Landau identifies its outstanding features as “the extraordinary care taken to produce a well-crafted, handsome set of books,” “the lavish attention and space given over to etymologies, which were the responsibility of Charles P.G. Scott,” and “the coverage given to encyclopedic material, particularly in the sciences and technology.” (The Century Dictionary is available online, I am happy to say.) On the second count, he says:

Some of the etymologies in the Century are immensely long. For example, the etymology for man is fifty-eight column lines long. After the proximate etyma (comparatively recent forms from which the current word was derived) are given, the note speculates about the ultimate origin of the word as relating to the meaning of ‘thinker’, but then dismisses the idea of primitive men as thinkers as ‘quite incredible’. It then goes on to consider other theories. Even relatively uncommon words receive detailed and lengthy etymologies. The etymology for akimbo runs to thirty-three column lines, whereas the rest of the entry devotes about half as much space (seventeen lines) to its definitions and illustrative quotations.

Landau sums up as follows:

The critical reception given the Century was overwhelmingly positive, and it was even compared favorably with the Oxford dictionary then in progress [i.e., the OED]. Yet the high cost of the Century kept it from being accessible to a wider public… [It] failed to sustain a continuing programme of research and revision…, and it could not compete effectively against the new series of unabridged dictionaries of Funk & Wagnalls and G. & C. Merriam…. Yet its comparative neglect is regrettable, as it is a superb dictionary in many respects and still has much to offer to those interested in the vocabulary of its period. It was from the beginning a quixotic venture (as many new dictionaries are), and it occupies a singular place in American lexicography… But as a dictionary that would endure to make a lasting mark on American intellectual life, it cannot be said to have succeeded. The unforgiving demands of the commercial marketplace led dictionary publishers in another direction: towards the creation of ever-larger, single-volume or two-volume unabridged dictionaries that could be sold at an affordable price.

Isaac Funk of Funk & Wagnalls (Adam Wagnalls “was involved purely as the principal investor and never played an editorial role”) broke with “the English tradition begun by Johnson and continued with various modifications by Webster and Worcester”:

First, Funk decreed that the commonest meaning, not the earliest in historical terms, should come first in the sequence of definitions… Next, and at the opposite pole from Whitney, Funk deemed etymology of lesser importance and placed it after the definition at the end of the dictionary entry rather than before the definition… The etymology for man, which occupied fifty-eight lines in the Century, cconsists of ‘< AS. man‘ in the Standard.

During the first third of the 20th century,

the Funk & Wagnalls dictionaries were widely considered on a par with the Webster dictionaries, and the competition between the two companies was just as fierce as the rivalry of an earlier time had been between Noah Webster and Joseph Worcester and their supporters… Gradually, after the publication of the Webster Second Edition in 1934, when there was no response from Funk & Wagnalls in the form of a new edition of its unabridged, the Webster dictionary began to have the field to itself, and, in spite of the publication of a number of new smaller dictionaries in the 1950s and 1960s, the Funk & Wagnalls Company never recovered and indeed struggled to survive as a dictionary publisher.

Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls!

DARE Fieldwork Recordings.

Another amazing resource available online:

From 1965–1970, Fieldworkers for the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) conducted interviews with nearly 3,000 “Informants” in 1,002 communities across America. They visited native residents in all fifty states and D.C., collecting local words, phrases, and pronunciations. In addition to answering more than 1,600 questions from the DARE Questionnaire, many of the Informants, along with auxiliary speakers, agreed to be recorded by the Fieldworkers. These recordings consisted of conversational interviews as well as readings of “The Story of Arthur the Rat” (devised to elicit the essential differences in pronunciation across the country). This fieldwork data provided invaluable regional information for the Dictionary of American Regional English Volumes I–VI (1985–2013) and Digital DARE.

The Fieldwork Recordings are finally available online approximately fifty years after the recordings were first made. The recordings contain American regional speech samples from all fifty states, but their value is not linguistic alone. The full interviews contain an abundance of oral history from the 1960s, with topics ranging from the making of moonshine to the moon landing; from light-hearted jokes, recipes, and songs to serious discussions about race relations, politics, and the Vietnam War. It is truly a time capsule of American voices.

Via MetaFilter, where commenters are being taken back to their childhoods:

There are two recordings from my small, rural, midwestern town from 1968. Listening to it, I am freaking out. The vowel sounds that I left behind, the vowel sounds I beat out of myself, are all there. Plus, I heard slang that that rang me like a bell; stuff I hadn’t heard since I was a little child.

I look forward to exploring it. (DARE previously on LH.)

Update (Aug. 2017). Sadly, DARE is apparently coming to an end as an ongoing project.

DARE Is Fleeching You.

Alison Flood reports on a clever initiative:

It’s not quite as vital as the battles to save the likes of the Amur leopard and giant panda from extinction, but a campaign to preserve a host of endangered regional American words and phrases has been launched, looking to save the likes of “wamus” to “sonsy”, and “spouty” to “bonnyclabber”.

The list of 50 words and phrases was compiled by the Dictionary of American Regional English, a project that has been running since 1965, when almost 3,000 face-to-face interviews were conducted with people across the US to map the thousands of differences in dialect across the states. DARE has chosen the words it believes to be “on the cusp of extinction” and teamed up with podcasting platform Acast, asking its producers and presenters to “adopt” an endangered word or phrase and use it on their shows.

The words and phrases range from to “be on one’s beanwater”, a New England phrase that means to be in high spirits or to feel frisky, to the south Atlantic verb “to fleech”, meaning to coax, wheedle or flatter. A heavy rain is described as a “frog strangler” in the southern states and south midlands, or a “goose drownder” in the midlands; “to vum” is to swear or declare in New England; “the last button on Gabe’s coat” is used in the south to refer to the last bit of food.

“Although language change is inevitable, it’s too bad to see some of our most colourful expressions going out of use,” said Joan Hall, former editor of DARE. “It would be fun to see them revitalised.”

I agree, and I hope people will take them up on it; the piece ends with a list of “the 50 endangered words and phrases.” A couple of quibbles: they should have made more of an effort to separate out “cute dialectal terms that nobody else is ever going to use” (e.g., Racket store: a variety store; Skillpot: a turtle) from words that one can imagine being adopted (Cuddy: a small room, closet, or cupboard; Fogo: An offensive smell; Sonsy: cute, charming, lively). Also, Shat: a pine needle? Get serious. (Thanks, Trevor!)


I got the latest (July/August) issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine today, and you can imagine my pleasure when I saw in large letters on the cover “Why ‘bad’ English isn’t.” I turned to page 37 and discovered this article by Peggy Kalb, featuring Yale’s Grammatical Diversity Project: “The group of 12-plus graduate and undergraduate students, led by linguistics professor Raffaella Zanuttini, is compiling existing data on the grammar of many varieties of American English, along with a complete database of their studies. They’re also putting together a map for every piece of data that belongs to a particular geographical region… Unlike the Dictionary of American Regional English, their focus is on syntax, not vocabulary.” Kalb provides a good summary:

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Just got an e-mail from frequent commenter John Cowan with a worthy cause and a book offer:

The Dictionary of American Regional English is very
close to being canceled, unless they can get more money. See here for details.
I accidentally bought two copies of McWhorter’s Power of Babel.
I will send a hardback in very good condition to the first Hattic who
contacts me at, and I will pay postage.

On your marks, get set, go!


Last October I posted about the impending completion of the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE); the completion has now taken place, and to celebrate, the University of Wisconsin–Madison has created a fine website, where you can see words from your state, hear informants read material for the survey, and take a quiz, among other things. And as much as I revile Simon Winchester, I have to admit that his essay on DARE (from Lapham’s Quarterly—see this LH post) makes an enjoyable read despite the absurd flourishes of his prose:

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.[…]

Winchester concludes with the melancholy reflection that “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”; he compares it to University of Chicago’s Assyrian Dictionary, finished just last year. (Thanks, Henry!)


Michael Adams, the author of Slang: The People’s Poetry (which I reviewed here), has an excellent essay in Humanities, Words of America: A Field Guide, about the history and originality of the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), whose fifth and final volume is expected to appear in March 2012. Adams starts by giving a nice example of polysemy:

According to this dictionary, a Wisconsin native may know a flower called a maybell, and so may a Michigander, but if they talk flora over a drink in Chicago, it may take awhile before they realize they are, in a sense, speaking different tongues. In Wisconsin, maybell means ‘lily of the valley’; in Michigan, it means ‘marsh marigold.’ The dictionary knows this because fieldworkers surveyed Wisconsin speakers with the question, “What are other names in your locality for the lily of the valley?” and Michigan speakers with the question, “What do you call the bright yellow flowers that bloom in clusters in marshes in early springtime?” Maybell was an occasional answer, a word some of us share that nonetheless underscores differences in how we know and name the world around us.

He goes on to describe the beginnings of DARE, undertaken by Frederic G. Cassidy, who was appointed editor in 1962, and then the history and importance of such projects in general:

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That’s the Dictionary of American Regional English (Vol. 1, Vol. 2, Vol. 3, Vol. 4), and after decades of work, it’s almost finished, according to an AP story by Ryan J. Foley:

The dictionary team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is nearing completion of the final volume, covering “S” to “Z.” A new federal grant will help the volume get published next year, joining the first four volumes already in print.
“It will be a huge milestone,” said editor Joan Houston Hall.
The dictionary chronicles words and phrases used in distinct regions. Maps show where a subway sandwich might be called a hero or grinder, or where a potluck — as in a potluck dinner or supper — might be called a pitch-in (Indiana) or a scramble (northern Illinois).
It’s how Americans do talk, not how they should talk….
After the final volume is published, the next phase of the project will be to put the dictionary online. Hall envisions an online edition that will be updated constantly.
Hall said her all-time favorite word is bobbasheely, used in Gulf Coast states as a noun meaning a good friend or a verb to hang around with a friend. It comes from the language of the Choctaw tribes.
Two people interviewed in Texas and Alabama in the 1960s used the word. Further digging revealed that Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner had once used it in a novel, and it was used in the early 19th century by a colleague of former vice president and duelist Aaron Burr.

I have to say, bobbasheely is indeed a great word. It’s from Choctaw itibapishili ‘sibling’ [literally ‘one who was nursed together with (someone)’]; the first noun cite is from 1829, the first verb cite from 1932, and the Faulkner quote is from his last novel, The Reivers (1962): “You and Sweet Thing bobbasheely on back to the hotel now, and me and Uncle Remus and Lord Fauntleroy will mosey along.” (Via MetaFilter.)


My wife asked me, out of the blue, why we refer to old jokes and stories as “chestnuts.” The short answer is, nobody knows. The OED says: “Origin unknown: said to have arisen in U.S. The newspapers of 1886-7 contain numerous circumstantial explanations palpably invented for the purpose. A plausible account is given in the place cited in quot. 1888”; that account is the one you can find in many places, for instance here:

In a play called ‘The Broken Sword’, by William Dimond, produced at Covent Garden in 1816, a character called Captain Xavier is always repeating unlikely stories about his exploits. On one occasion, talking to a character called Pablo, he mentions a cork-tree. Pablo corrects Xavier, saying that the tree was a chestnut, and ‘I ought to know, for haven’t I heard you tell this story twenty-seven times?’
The play was soon forgotten, but many years later in America, an actor named William Warren Jr recalled this episode at an actors’ dinner, where another speaker had told a stale old joke. The actors who were present picked the phrase up, and ‘an old chestnut’ became a synonym for ‘an old joke’.

That’s probably as good as we’re going to do. Eric Partridge in Origins: An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English‎ says it “prob comes from roasted chestnuts eaten at the gossipy fireside,” which is the kind of vague guess I expect of that genial old soul. The Dictionary of American Regional English doesn’t venture an explanation but does show it as being chiefly in the Northeast and North Midlands. For me it’s part of core vocabulary; I wonder if younger people use it?


Joseph M. Romero’s “Life Among the Lexicographers” is a description of the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) and its creators, and it discusses both particular dialect terms and the decisions on whether to include them. This is a neat example of both:

When in doubt, DARE editors tend to err on the side of inclusion. Many words are amply attested—that is, there are plenty of recorded uses. Others appear only once. Should poorly attested words be excluded? The phrase trade-last, for one—meaning a kind of quid pro quo—”I’ll say something nice about you if you say something nice about me first”—is found scattered throughout the country, especially among older speakers. A regional variant, last-go-trade, is found in the middle and south Atlantic and has an entry of its own; but what about Alaskan trade, which means exactly the same thing but appears only once in the sources available to DARE? “It was important to include Alaskan trade even with only one instance, because it’s a wonderful example of the process of folk etymology,” says Hall. “Someone who is unfamiliar with the folk tradition of trading compliments hears the phrase last-go-trade, doesn’t quite understand it, and tries to make it meaningful by substituting a word that is familiar. Since Alaska is, to most Americans, a far-away and exotic place, it makes sense to the hearer that the unusual custom would be an Alaskan trade.”

(Via wood s lot, which has good links on slang as well today.)

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