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

June 09, 1991|By RICK HOROWITZ

The slip of paper hangs just above the light switch in Frederic Cassidy's office. At 83, he shows no signs of resting. He may have handed off most of the day-to-day administrative duties to Joan Hall, but he's still hard at work, looking for DARE words in new books, researching "ker" -- as in "kerchunk," "kerplop" -- spending his weekends learning to use a computer.

Plus "other things that strike my fancy."

He's still betting on words -- betting there's an audience for his dictionary, and betting he can steer the project to completion.

"I'm extremely fortunate -- I have very good health," says Mr. Cassidy, who takes three pills a day ("one to prevent palpitations, one to prevent clotting, and one aspirin"), exercises morning and evening, and takes "a fortnight" off each year for hiking and such. "I don't see why I shouldn't live to 100."

"It takes us about, let's say, three years for a volume," he says a moment later. "If you counted a dozen years, that would take us into the early part of the next century and we'd have the whole thing done."

("Three years for a volume" -- everyone else at DARE says five to six years per volume. Perhaps it's the only way this master of words can make the essential numbers come out right.)

Is it a race against time? "Oh, I should say, yes," Mr. Cassidy replies, calmly. "Why not?" But is it a race he can win?

"I think it's possible that he could live to see it," says one DARE staffer. "I really do. This is it, this is his baby. That's a powerful motivation. But he knows you can't rush this kind of thing."

Frederic Cassidy may be a prisoner of his own success -- in designing the project, in tapping the incredible vitality of the American language, in the oceans of data he's collected. He wouldn't have it any other way.

"Once you plunge into a thing like this, you're in it," he says, "and you can't let it go if you want to do a good job. . . . There'll be nothing like this possible again, because time keeps on changing, and the language keeps on changing.

RICK HOROWITZ'S last story for the magazine was on historical anniversaries.

HAVE YOU SEEN THESE WORDS?

THE DICTIONARY OF American Regional English is looking for a few good words.

With all the data they've collected over the years, sometimes the people at DARE still don't know enough about a particular word or phrase -- where it came from, what it means, who uses it and when. Maybe you can help.

The following all have appeared on DARE's "most wanted" lists in newsletters of the American Dialect Society. See any you recognize? Know anything about them? Send your information to: DARE, 6125 Helen White Hall, 600 N. Park St., Madison, Wis. 53706.

*FROG IN THE POT: "There's a frog in the pot" -- this one seems to be said when a pot is slow to boil. But DARE has only one quote for it: Delaware in 1982. More information?

*LEADMAN: A children's game. DARE has two quotes for it -- 1901 from central New York and 1950 from Illinois -- but no description of how it's played. And how is "lead" pronounced?

*HUSH THE LILAC: Another children's game -- similar, DARE believes, to "run-sheep-run." But DARE has only one report, from Wisconsin around 1960. And, DARE wonders, what could "lilac" mean?

*MULE: "He just muled right down." To become quiet, especially when threatened. DARE's got one example, from Kentucky in 1962. Is the verb used elsewhere? Is it used in any other way?

*FRECKLE: A disapproving term apparently used by Oklahoma Indians for an Indian who takes on "white" ways. DARE's source -- a good one, they say -- is a white Southwesterner. But it's looking for confirmation.

*MILK BROTHER: A male child whose mother has no milk and is breast-fed by another child's mother. DARE found the term in Appalachia; it wants more evidence. And is the term still being used?

*HEEL: The end slice of a loaf of bread. Or do you call it a "nibby"? DARE is running a mini-census on this one.

*HOOFTIE: A newspaper article from the Pittsburgh area said that police were having trouble with "hoofties" -- young people camping and living unconventionally. Any more details? And is the term used elsewhere?

*HUTCHERLY: A 1949 reference describes "hutcherly" in South Carolina as "a baked, spiced clingstone peach split several ways while still attached to the stone." DARE wants further evidence, and wonders whether the name might be Swiss.

*HOT BALL: Still another game -- DARE's found it in Texas and Arkansas. Does anybody know the rules? Any other locations? Any other information?

*GOD-SHOP: A church. James Baldwin used it on television in 1965 -- did he make it up, or was it a term already in use? By whom? Where? Is it ever so slightly derogatory?

*INDIAN'S NERVE: The funny bone. DARE has one report from a "middle-aged white informant from a small city in Georgia." Confirmation, please?

TRACKING DOWN BOBBY SHEELIES

WITH ALL THE THOUSANDS of words the Dictionary of American Regional English staffers have hunted down over the years, some stand out. Ask Joan Hall:

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