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!


The word dooryard is well known to me as a lexical item, but I had no idea what exactly it meant; as ktschwarz said in this Wordorigins thread, “like probably most Americans outside New England, I associate it mainly with Walt Whitman’s ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’.” Fortunately, in the same thread cuchuflete linked to this 2017 FB post from the Bangor Maine Police Department:

The term “dooryard” has such a simple and clear meaning to me that I had no idea the phrase could be so misunderstood. Door + Yard = Dooryard. A concise term, crafted over time by our ancestors. I even received a few notes that hinted of frustration in my use of the term without a definition attached. I feel wicked bad. So stinkin’ bad – that I now have to write an entirely separate post to clear up the confusion.

Dooryard (sometimes pronounced Doah-Yahd – don’t do this) simply means the area of yard adjacent to the most commonly used door exiting the home where you are currently dwelling. It could be the front door, it could be the side door, and it might even be the back door. It also could be the yard(s) located by each and every door in your home. You make the determination of where the “dooryard” is at your home, and if your uncle Mervin stops by, he might only consider the dooryard to be the area near the side door.

The best indicator of the area of which the person speaks would be to pay attention to the movement of their head or shoulders when they use the term. Pointing is too obvious. If the person is indicating the dooryard near the side of the house, he or she might glance in that general direction. You will know, but only if you pay attention.
When you arrive at a home in Maine (and I have arrived at many in many different towns during my time as an investigator) you need to look for door with the most worn path in the grass or mud.

Just because there are pavers or crushed rock leading to a door does not mean that it is the clear choice in entry and exit for the homeowners. You must find the dooryard. Screw it up, and you will not be welcomed. […] Whatever you do, do not try to pronounce “dooryard” like Tom Bosley did in “Murder She Wrote.” Do not try to use a Maine accent if you do not have a Maine accent. It actually can get you into trouble. Actually, don’t even try to use the term “dooryard” unless you know where it is. If you use the term regularly, you understand. If you don’t, that’s cool as well. […]

The OED (in a 1897 entry) defines it as “A yard or garden-patch about the door of a house” and gives the following citations:

c1764 in T. D. Woolsey Hist. Disc. (1850) 54 The Freshmen ..are forbidden to wear their the front door~yard of the President’s or Professor’s house.
1854 J. R. Lowell Cambr. 30 Years Ago in Prose Wks. (1890) I. 59 The flowers which decked his little door-yard.
1878 Emerson in N. Amer. Rev. CXXVI. 412 We send to England for shrubs, which grow as well in our own door~yards and cow-pastures.
1913 R. Frost Boy’s Will 9 How drifts are piled, Dooryard and road ungraded.
1941 T. S. Eliot Dry Salvages i. 7 The rank ailanthus of the April dooryard.

The Dictionary of American Regional English labels it “chiefly NEng, NY” (and Whitman, of course, was from NY). We previously discussed the word in 2018. And in connection with the last citation, I will remind people that in that title Salvages has penultimate stress and “long a” (or, as Eliot annoyingly puts it, “Salvages is pronounced to rhyme with assuages” — why not use wages as the rhyming word rather than one nobody knows how to pronounce?).


Edwin L. Battistella at OUPblog posts about a magnificent old term that is too little known:

It turns out that honeyfuggler is an old American term for someone who deceives others folks by flattering them. It can be spelled with one g or two and sometimes with an o replacing the u. To honeyfuggle is to sweet talk, but also to bamboozle, bumfuzzle, or hornswoggle.

The word has some twists and turns in its history. According to both the Oxford English Dictionary and the Dictionary of American Regional English, it was first recorded as a Kentucky term in 1829 with the definition “to quiz” or “to cozen,” both of which at the time meant to dupe.

The earliest example in the database is from an 1841 story in a Tennessee newspaper, the Rutherford Telegraph, in which an editor used the term to mean insincere flattery. He said of the Speaker of the Tennessee state senate that “Some may say it is impolitic of me to talk thus plainly about Mr. Turney, and think it better to honey-fuggle and plaster over with soft-soap to potent a Senator.” […]

Honeyfuggle remained a marginal term, often characterized as slang or as a regionalism, but it popped into the national consciousness when Taft deployed it to characterize his predecessor and then-rival for the 1912 Republican presidential nomination. In a speech in Cambridge, Ohio, Taft said:

I hold that the man is a demagogue and a flatterer who comes out and tells the people that they know it all. I hate a flatterer. I like a man to tell the truth straight out, and I hate to see a man try to honeyfuggle the people by telling them something he doesn’t believe. […]

Where does honeyfuggle come from? One theory, found in Bartlett’s 1848 Dictionary of Americanisms is that it is a variation of a British English dialect word coneyfogle, which meant to hoodwink or cajole by flattery. Coney is an old word for an adult rabbit and was sometimes used to indicate a person who was gullible. Fugle, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is older dialect term meaning “to trick or deceive.” So to coneyfogle or coneyfugle meant to cheat a mark.

Today the OED reports that honeyfuggle is “Now somewhat dated.” Perhaps we should try revive it.


Pure D.

I’m back to reading Norwood (see this post), and I just ran across a sentence that made me happier than it had any right to: “It’s pure d. meanness is what is it.” (I’m not sure whether “what is it” is an error for “what it is,” which sounds far more natural to me, or whether it’s a regional form I’m not familiar with.) I had never seen or heard the term “pure d” except from my late friend Mike (thegrowlingwolf), a dyed-in-the-wool Texan who would say things like “That’s pure-d crazy”; the meaning was obvious and the sound of it irresistible, but I would never have dreamed of using it myself — it would have felt like swiping his boots. Naturally I wondered what the origin was, and how to spell it (I think Mike may have written “pure-dee” in his blog). Now seeing it there in print, with a period after the d., made me realize it must be short for “damn”: what a thrill! So of course I googled it, and found this Wordwizard page (I hadn’t known about Wordwizard) which investigates the question; Ken Greenwald cites the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE):

PUREDEE adjective, adverb. Also PURE-D, PURE DEE OLD, PURE O.D., PURE OLDEE, PURE-T [[all forms in lower case]] [Probably originally euphemism for pure damn(ed)] chiefly South and South Midland, U.S.: Genuine, real, just plain; very, really, completely.

<1938 “It’s the Pure D truth.”—Guide Mississippi FWP [[?? Field Worker Proposal]]

<1941 Texas “‘Them folks are mean out there,’ Mrs. Clampett said. ‘Just pure dee mean.’”—Hold Autumn by Perry, page 203 >

<1952 “Kip’s lip curled at this slovenly practice, one which he has always called purdee shif’less.” Ibid “You’re puredee heller.”—Home is Upriver by Harwin (Hench College), page 8 and 187>

<1953 Ozarks “Pure dee . . . Genuine, indubitable. ‘No, them ain’t no chigger bites. That’s the pure dee seven-year itch!’”—Down in the Holler by Randolph & Wilson, page 275>

<1958 central Texas “It’s pure-dee hog-hunting weather.”—Meskin Hound by Lathham, page 53>

<1964 North Carolina “He loafed about his office playing patience in a white uniform and pure-T bare feet, which scared all his patients away.”—If Morning Ever Comes by Tyler, page 44>

<1968 Louisiana “ A dull and stupid person, Pure-d dumb”—DARE Question HH3, Louisiana informant 35>

<1970 Texas “Elliott . . . found a pair of nearly new overalls . . . dry socks and one of his father’s gray work shirts. ‘Lordy, lordy. You wouldn’t know me from a pure-dee old scissorbill, Grady said wryly with satisfaction.”—Harper’s Magazine, April, page 80>

<1972 New York City [Black] “So this one day Miss Moore rounds us all up at the mailbox and it’s PUREDEE hot and she’s knockin herself out about arithmetic.”—in Calling the Wind (1973) by Major, page 348>

<1982 Indiana “I have heard pure D. in Southern Indiana used as what seemed to me to be a negative intensifier—it almost always precedes a negative word, nonsense, mean, ornery, etc.; Mississippi “During my youth, I often heard the usage in question, always, or nearly always—as pure oldee; Louisiana “Around 1950, I heard and used the phrase ‘pure D. It was used pejoratively (e.g., in response to a tall story, ‘That’s a load of pure D horse shit!’)”; central eastern Texas “In this part of Texas, as well as in the Houston area where I grew up, we said ‘pure O.D. __________,’ but pure dee old (something).”—Newsletter of the American Dialect Society Letters>

<1986 central west Florida “Pure D hell—unqualified hell; they give you pure D hell; pure D plumb nasty—extremely nasty; central west Arkansas they give you Pure D old belly—just plain belly”—Linguistic Atlas of the Gulf States Concordance>

<1995 “‘That catfish was puredee good.’ Pure D(amn) good.”—Signal Magazine, December>

Then I checked Jonathon Green, and for maybe the first time was disappointed: not only do his citations not go back before 1953, but he suggests d might be “short for dandy.” Damn, Jonathon, get serious! “Dandy” my ass.

Is “Y’all” in Trouble?

Allan Metcalf reports for Lingua Franca on a distressing new development:

For some time, “y’all” has been assaulted by “you guys” aiming to replace it as the go-to second-person-plural pronoun in the South. […] In the Dictionary of American Regional English, the usage note for “you guys” says “orig. chiefly North; now widespread; esp freq. among younger speakers.” It backs this up with two citations that indicate the invasion has been on its way at least since the recent turn of the century:

2000 American Speech 75.417: Meanwhile, just as y’all seems to be spreading outside the South, you-guys is moving into the South, especially among younger speakers. […]

Now, I am not in any sense a Southerner, though my father’s side of the family is from the Ozarks and I have some remnants of that accent (UM-brella, IN-surance); I don’t use “y’all” in my normal speech. But I think it’s a wonderful bit of English, and I am appalled at the thought that it could get replaced by the nondescript “you guys.” So y’all get out there and preserve your linguistic heritage!

The Closing of DARE.

I’ve posted a number of times about the Dictionary of American Regional English (e.g., on its completion and on the Fieldwork Recordings); now, sadly, I must write about the shutdown of the entire project, as reported by one of LH’s favorite lexicographers, Jesse Sheidlower, for the New Yorker. After introducing DARE and describing its many excellences (William Safire called it “the most exciting new linguistic project in the twentieth century”), Sheidlower gets to the bad news:

DARE was primarily supported by grants, especially from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation, and the Mellon Foundation. In recent years, small individual donations played an increasing role in the project’s funding. The institutional donors pretty much felt that they did their job to get the dictionary to “Z.” The publicity from the completion of the main text led to an influx of enough money to finish Volume VI, which included maps and indices, but that was it. In the last few years, the staff applied for additional grants to update and add new entries; these failed to materialize. Squeaking by on royalties and individual gifts, and with several editors working on a volunteer basis, the dictionary was able to publish some quarterly updates, but by the beginning of the coming year, it will be necessary to lay off the staff.

Now the hundreds of boxes of files are going into the University of Wisconsin archives, after some last-minute work to insure that the most important records are indexed properly. Editors will try to keep some visibility—continuing to do radio interviews, for example—but this will also be on a mostly volunteer basis.

DARE will probably prove to be the last major dictionary based on personal fieldwork, as more modern techniques take over. By creating an interesting survey and getting people to complete it online, you can get a lot of data. This was the method of the Harvard Dialect Survey, a set of a hundred and twenty-two questions created by the linguist Bert Vaux, who is now at Cambridge University. When the Times created an interactive quiz based on the data, in 2013, its story “How Y’all, Youse and You Guys Talk” became its highest-traffic piece of the entire year, despite being published on December 21st—demonstrating just how fascinated people remain about their local speech.

And instead of any method of studying the speech of individuals, the most modern thing of all is corpus analysis: taking billions of words of text—from geotagged posts on Twitter, from online regional newspapers—and running them through elaborate statistical processing. The computational linguist Jack Grieve uses this approach to generate maps revealing truths about language that no one had—or, for that matter, could have—noticed before. This is probably the direction that future research will take; it’s relatively inexpensive and yields fascinating results that dramatically add to our understanding of language. But one can’t help feeling that it’s a shame to take the words out of the mouths of their speakers.

A shame indeed. But at least we have the dictionary itself.

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:

[Read more…]


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!