Walt Whitman once envisioned a "Real Dictionary that will give all the words that exist in use, the bad words as well as any." Next month, 130 years after asking for it, Whitman gets his book -- the first volume of a monumental new work of scholarship, the "Dictionary of American Regional English" (DARE).
DARE was first planned in the 19th century and has been a work-in-progress at the University of Wisconsin since 1965. Editors and researchers went to 1,000 burgs, burbs and backwaters around the nation, collecting samples of the true and complete American language.
They discovered, among much else, the more than 200 ways Americans refer to an outdoor toilet, including: privy, outhouse, backhouse, one-holer, lilac lodge, Maggie and Jiggs, First National Bank, half-moon and hooter. Belknap Press will publish thousands of such treasures when it issues "A-C," the first of five volumes, in early September.
DARE is a unique tribute to the richness of American English, preserving countless variations of regional speech and tracking their origins by means of small maps and extensive definitions.
"There has never been a dictionary like this," says DARE's chief editor, Frederic G. Cassidy. "Our language is one of the most important and beautiful things we have. This dictionary is a way of appreciating the language as it's spoken all over the United States."
DARE reveals the American language expanding wondrously in every corner and county. Imagine Whitman's delight at an entry such as "astamagootis" -- a term in parts of New Jersey and Iowa for a worrywart. According to DARE it probably derives from the Dutch "als het maar goed is," meaning "if only everything turns out well."
Cassidy hopes that DARE, with all its linguistic jewels, will be finished by the end of the decade. Cassidy, an emeritus professor of English at Wisconsin, received the first completed volume the other day in Madison and he and his staff held a modest party to celebrate.
"But we're by no means done," he says. "I'm 78 years old and there are still four volumes to do -- D-I, J-R, S-Z and a fifth volume that will include our bibliography and the answers to our questionnaires. D, E and F are complete. My health is excellent, but I don't have forever, you know. I didn't expect it would take this long but we kept getting good stuff. Now it's a race between the two of us: the dictionary and me."
For his "Dictionary of the English Language" (1775), Dr. Samuel Johnson defined "lexicographer" as "a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge."
"Johnson is the presiding genius here," Cassidy says, pointing to a portrait hanging near his desk. Johnson, unlike Cassidy, had no graduate students -- "the modern amanuensis" -- to help him. He worked as a one-man academy. For eight years he sat on a stool poring over the works of "the best writers" and the few extant dictionaries. In the end, says Cassidy, "Johnson's definitions were models of concision." And sometimes of prejudice, as in "Oats: a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people."
Cassidy refers to two other presiding geniuses: Sir James A.H. Murray, the Scottish editor of the greatest dictionary in any language, "The Oxford English Dictionary" (1928), and Joseph Wright, the pioneering editor of the six-volume "English Dialect Dictionary" (1905).
Cassidy sees the OED as an unsurpassed model: its completeness, its form, its focused definitions. Britain, despite its relatively small land area, is rich with dialects, and Wright's team of lexicographers collected material from every corner of the country. There are also French, German and Italian "linguistic atlases" that seek to map and describe regional speech.
With some exceptions, Americans can understand each other reasonably well. There is not a separate New York English as there is, say, a Roman Italian. But as the American Dialect Society recognized from the time it was founded 96 years ago in Cambridge, Mass., American English is rich with dialect words and locutions. The language, they said, must be studied and appreciated for all its infinite variety.
For decades the ADS compiled word-lists from all over the United States. A dictionary, based on the example of the English Dialect Dictionary, was always the society's goal. But the dictionary would have to wait for Frederic Cassidy, its presiding Dr. Johnson, its "harmless drudge." Though the project could be completed without him, Cassidy is the soul and personality behind DARE.
Says New York Times language columnist William Safire, "Fifty years from now people will recognize Cassidy as a major force in American culture. He's done something absolutely remarkable."
On the sixth floor of Helen White Hall in Madison, the professor emeritus sits surrounded by centuries of English: Shakespeare, Milton, Faulkner and Twain. Cassidy's hair and mustache are pure white. His manner is patient and careful in the academic tradition. He wears the sort of gray-green suit that seems to appear on the back of every humanities professor in the country.
"I was born in Kingston, Jamaica. My father was from Canada and worked as a businessman. My mother was Jamaican. She was a lady and did what ladies did. She made lace, china painting. Servants did the work in the house.
"Although there is obviously a real separation between the Creole speakers and the English speakers, the language was in the air. I published the 'Dictionary of Jamaican English' in 1967.
"I went off to high school in Akron, Ohio, college at Oberlin, where I really began and developed my interests, and then a doctorate at the University of Michigan. I was on the staffs for dictionaries of early modern English, Middle English and a linguistic atlas of the Great Lakes."
Down the hall from his small office is "the big room," actually a compact library containing the stuff of which the new dictionary is made. There are heaps of card-catalogue boxes with the names of all the sources for the dictionary. On the left wall are shelves packed with novels, dictionaries, travel guides and clippings. In the back are two desks, where assistants are almost always poring over texts in search of linguistic nuggets.
And on the right wall is a mountain of bound questionnaires.
In 1964 Cassidy and Audrey Duckert, a former student who now teaches at Amherst College, drew up the questionnaires to be completed by respondents in 1,000 communities in every state and the District of Columbia. Beginning with seemingly innocuous questions on time ("What do you call the time in the early morning before the sun comes into sight?") and weather ("A frost that kills plants is a ---?"), the 1,847 questions include 41 categories, some as concrete as foods and farm animals, some as abstract as honesty and emotion.
Between 1965 and 1970, field workers accumulated nearly 2.5 million individual answers to feed into the university's computer system. Occasionally the field workers had adventures of their own. One woman had to fight off the amorous advances of a Louisiana oil-rig worker. A black field worker found himself in a tense situation in Alabama when, according to Cassidy, "some redneck thought our man was up to something more revolutionary than academic."
Scores of regions provided scores of linguistic wonders. But some areas proved especially rich.
"Obviously the best areas for regional speech are places like Appalachia, any 'back country' where the language is 'conservative,' " says Cassidy. "I mean 'conservative' in the literal sense. Places where the language is conserved over time and is less subject to rapid change. The ideal respondent was someone who had been in a particular area for a long time, preferably with relatives in the area, too."
Mark Twain, too, recognized "the vigorous new vernacular of the occidental plains and mountains." And that vigor has been conserved by, for example, the Oregonians, who call a car's glove compartment a "jockey box," a term from pioneer days referring to a box kept under the driver's seat on a wagon.
Says Cassidy, "We found black English to be a special phenomenon. For older people in the northern cities -- such as Washington, Philadelphia, New York -- it's basically a matter of Southern language grafted to Northern ways. For those blacks the language has not changed much.
"The younger people in the ghettos are trying to find their own way and integrity. The same for Puerto Ricans and Cubans. The younger blacks have only a tenuous or romantic attachment to the South or no attachment at all and their speech has been greatly influenced, of course, by the movement of jazz music to the North."
Referring to DARE one finds that a word such as "cool" began among blacks after emancipation to mean "good, fine, pleasing," later became a term to describe certain modes of jazz in the 1940s and by the 1950s was a widespread term meaning "self-possessed, calm, sophisticated."
"The research was fascinating," Cassidy says. "In Hawaii one of my informants claimed he had Hawaiian royal blood. He wore the ancient sort of kilt and had a reproduction of a native Hawaiian village. He told me about all sorts of words that have entered the language. Like 'akamai,' a common word meaning 'clever' or 'skillful.'
"I also did the field work in Washington myself. It's like any city. It's mixed up. A lot of the people there are especially transient. I did spend some time with some tobacco growers just across the D.C. border. I plugged my tape recorder into their one outlet in the barn and got a remarkable tape. They'd been growing tobacco there for 50 years and I heard there the term 'case weather.' "
And so there it is in DARE. "Case weather: a warm spell in the winter during which tobacco leaves soften enough to be handled without breaking."
Cassidy, as one might expect, has become a walking dictionary of such regionalisms. On the way downstairs to the student union for lunch, he stops in at one of the computer rooms and finds an assistant typing definitions to "fandango." Cassidy's pale green eyes brighten and a wide grin cuts across his face.
"You know fandango was a Spanish dance," he says, "but it's also a knife fight, a social gathering and even a sort of toy in a park, an ancestor of the Ferris wheel."
At the union, Frederic Cassidy explains the menu. Hot dog and hamburger, it seems, are not without their regional variations. Ditto for a grilled cheese sandwich.
Cassidy did not rely solely on the questionnaires. He and assistants also pursued the Johnsonian method, reading thousands of texts.
Certain novelists were especially helpful and quotations from their works appear in the dictionary: Faulkner and Eudora Welty for Mississippi, Zora Neale Hurston for Georgia, Claude Brown for urban black English, Emerson and Thoreau for New England, Edward Eggelston for Indiana, Wallace Stegner for California.
In Hurston's "Mules and Men," for example, DARE discovered the word "astorperious," a term marrying the wealthy Astor family name to the adjective "imperious" to form a new word for "haughty." As in, "Aw, Gran'pa, don't be so astorperious!"
The shelves of the big room are also crammed with less exalted sources: "The Cowboy Encyclopedia," "Rhymes of Vermont Rural Life," travel diaries from every corner of the country. Elsewhere there are heaps of small-town newspapers.
" 'Uncle Remus' was even a terrific source," says Cassidy.
Like the Oxford English Dictionary, which sought to include all English words beginning with the 7th century, DARE is a decidedly historical document, a record of American regional English over time and geography. For that reason many of the entries in DARE include small maps of the United States with black dots that indicate where the particular word is used.
One finds that "brownie" is a word for penny, chiefly in South Carolina; that "bubba" is a word for brother, mainly among southern blacks; that a "bug-eye" is a word for a flat-bottomed oyster boat used almost solely in the Chesapeake Bay area; that the Pennsylvanian word for nosy is "nibby," as in "Nib out!"
Further browsing leads one to "hooftie" (a Pittsburgh word for hippie), "alter kocker" (a Yiddishism for old fogy), "frost boil" (a Minnesota term for a bump or pit in pavement caused by frost), and "swonga" (a term for swaggering in the Gullah dialect of the Georgia and Carolina sea islands).
Those who look through DARE for some of the more obvious terms of American, four-lettered rudeness will not often be disappointed. The only words left out are ones that are widely known and without regional interest.
"No use putting in something like 'damn,' " says Cassidy. "The rest are all there. If they're regional, we put them in. We don't expurgate anything. You wouldn't have an accurate picture of the language if you left anything out."
Beyond words or phrases considered standard, DARE does not include the jargon of a particular group (truckers, sailors, mobsters) unless it has escaped into more general usage. "Blood," a common term meaning a fellow black, probably began as a prison usage. Now that it's jumped those walls, it has jumped into the pages of DARE.
At $49.95, the first volume, says Cassidy, "is a bargain." A variety of donors helped support the project, including the U.S. Office of Education (forerunner of the Department of Education), the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
As Whitman wrote, "The occasions of the English speech in America are immense, profound. Stretch over ten thousand vast cities, over through thousands of years, millions of miles of meadows, farms, mountains, men."