Finger-nosing the old foozles at 84 Guy spends his life collecting gems of dialect.

December 23, 1991|By Los Angeles Times

MADISON, Wis. -- In his own words, not the ones he speaks but the deliciously rich variety he hunts and hordes like precious boodle, Frederic Cassidy at 84 is far from being a washed up old foozle.

Sure, he's been cataloging uniquely American sayings since the hogs ate my brother up, and sure, after 26 years he's only made it through the letter "H."

But don't be a dinkeldorf. Cassidy can still whip his weight in wildcats and any suggestion that he somehow won't make it to Z is pure fahdoodle. After all, crafting a work as intricate as the nation's first truly thorough and authoritative compendium of its varied dialects is something that's got to be well fogged out. To do it right, it's bound to take from here to Gypep.

"Lexicography is not a rapid science," deadpans Cassidy, uttering the sort of fancy term for dictionary writing more suited to a bluenose trying to put on the dogs.

Such $10 expressions are definitely not the stuff of Cassidy's work: The Dictionary of American Regional English, an ambitious, groundbreaking and anything but expeditiously put-together examination into the nooks and crannies of American speech.

DARE -- the apt acronym for the project headquartered at the University of Wisconsin here -- clearly is a major work in progress.

Conceived more than a century ago by the American Dialect Society, DARE didn't get off the ground until the elite fraternity of linguists recruited Cassidy, a professor of English at the Madison campus, to direct the monumental task.

Fueled over the years by millions of dollars in federal and private foundation grants, research began in 1965 when an army of field workers fanned across the 50 states.

Without a doubt, the Dialect Society doyens didn't pick Cassidy to edit their masterpiece because of his reputation for speed. Before DARE, his best known work was a single volume dictionary of Jamaican Creole English. He started it in 1951 and finished 16 years later.

But, at 84, will he finish his latest work?

"I have something to live for," he says. "Lots of old people don't. They're just pattering along the last of it. Between discipline and luck I can probably make it to 100. We're planning on it."

In Maryland and Virginia, that's what they'd call "finger-nosing" at old age.

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