So Many Words, So Little Time After twenty-six years, dictionary still awaits its final chapter

June 09, 1991|By RICK HOROWITZ

BEEN OUT TO THE STICKS LATELY?

Or do they call it "the boondocks" where you come from? Or "cabbage patch"? "cheesequake"? "The first rusty spike to the left"?

And what about the part of town where the well-off folks live? "Nob Hill"? "Snob Hill"? "Debtors' Row"?

Do you call your morning doughnut a "sinker"? A "dunker"? A "soaker"? A "clinker"? Some people do.

If you want your tea without milk or lemon, do you take it "straight"? Or "plain"? "black"? Or "barefoot"? In Georgia, you might ask for it "raw." In Louisiana or Texas, "dry-long-so."

If someone told you the bride walked down the aisle carrying "a beautiful flowerpot," would you laugh? Or are you from those parts of Virginia and North Carolina where a "flowerpot" is a bouquet?

You didn't know all that. Frederic Cassidy and the people around him know all that, and lots more just as surprising. They're getting ready to share another chunk of what they know with the rest of us.

Rolling off the presses this spring, and into bookstores this fall: Volume II of the Dictionary of American Regional English -- DARE for short, and quite deliberately. When it's completed, DARE will tell Americans more about the words they use than they've ever known. Not the words they should use, the words they do use -- in their homes, with their neighbors, down at the store.

If everybody in the country uses the same word to mean the same thing, chances are you won't find it in DARE. The people working on DARE want words that don't run coast to coast, words that don't get taught in school, words that describe everything from your very best friend to your broken-down car.

If America is the sum of its parts, DARE is after the parts. Call it a celebration of diversity in five volumes. Or six. Or . . .

VOLUME II, D TO H, IS THE NEW ONE, TO BE PUBLISHED THIS fall by Belknap Press at Harvard University. Volume I, A to C, was published in 1985. Up on the sixth floor of Helen White Hall, on the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin, they're already hard at work on Volume III -- I to M -- expected in 1996 or so. After that, who knows? When it began, you see, the entire project was expected to take only eight or nine years. That was in 1965.

And for all this time, DARE has been led by Professor Frederic Gomes Cassidy, who brought the project to life way back when, and who fully intends to see it through to completion sometime after the year 2000. Frederic Cassidy is 83.

Frederic Gomes Cassidy, chief editor: born in Jamaica, grew up speaking both colonial English and Creole. Until he was tall enough to reach the dinner table by himself, he perched on the family's great big Webster's Dictionary. ("The words were supposed to work their way up through me by osmosis," he says with a laugh.)

Mr. Cassidy moved to Ohio when he was 11, and began teaching English at Madison at 32, in 1939. In 1951, tape recorder in hand, he returned to Jamaica as a Fulbright Research Fellow to compile what would become -- 16 years of part-time work later -- the first dictionary of Jamaican folk speech.

In the meantime, he offered to the American Dialect Society a plan for yet another, bigger, dictionary project, and found himself (not entirely to his surprise) tapped to run it. An American regional English dictionary would be a full-time job. But Mr. Cassidy knew you had to go where the words were.

Five vans, each equipped with plastic dishes, tape recorders and eager fieldworkers, fanned out across America.

There was method to their mileage. DARE scoured all 50 states to come up with 1,000 or so relatively stable communities, of varied size and type. Find us people who'd been born right there (or close by), and who hadn't been away much, the fieldworkers were told. And concentrate on older people, but otherwise find us a good mix.

"You walked into the general store," remembers Sheila Kolstad, the project's senior science editor. "You bought something. . . . You'd start a conversation, and then you'd quietly work in what you were there for. And pretty soon they'd say, 'Oh, well, you gotta talk to Mrs. So-and-So down the road here.' "

Sometimes -- not often -- they got turned down. Sometimes -- once, at least -- they got shot at. Generally, matters went more smoothly. A good thing: Ms. Kolstad and her colleagues were armed with only a questionnaire: 1,847 questions (223 of which were soon eliminated as unproductive) in 41 different categories.

The opening topics were especially non-threatening: Time. ("What do you call the time in the early morning before the sun comes into sight?") Weather. Farm Animals. Then on to other topics -- Religion and Beliefs ("On a church building, what do you call the part that sticks up high?"), Honesty and Dishonesty, Relationships Among People ("I wouldn't know him from ____________.") There was a section on Children's Games, another on Health and Disease, and so on.

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