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!)