English, as We Speak It in America

JAMES J. KILPATRICK

August 18, 1993|By JAMES J. KILPATRICK

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- What is another term for twilight besides ''dusk''? In parts of Virginia and Georgia, that's the time between late afternoon and early evening when the light is so dim that ''you can't tell a hawk from a buzzard.''

That delightful tidbit comes to you courtesy of the Dictionary of American Regional English. It is the most remarkable work of lexicography since Samuel Johnson in 1755 produced his monumental Dictionary of the English Language.

Today's Dr. Johnson is Frederic G. Cassidy, 86, emeritus professor of English at the University of Wisconsin. In 1963, he had an idea. He would build on work begun in 1889 of the American Dialect Society.

He would put together a team of field workers who would sweep the nation coast-to-coast. They would go into big cities, small towns and rural communities. Everywhere, they would search for those regional terms and phrases that contribute to the richness of American English.

Now, 30 years later, the massive project is about half done.

Volume One, covering the letters A through C, appeared in 1985. Volume Two, covering D through H, appeared in 1991. Joan Hall, Mr. Cassidy's associate editor, believes Volume Three will be off the press in 1996. If all goes at the present pace, a final volume should be ready by 2000.

This will be followed by a supplementary volume listing the 1,847 questions that were asked of a thousand respondents and summarizing their 2.5 million spontaneous answers.

The overall object is to record words and phrases that are used only in part of the country or by a particular social group. The work includes folk usages, regardless of region.

For example, it excludes such universally employed insults as tTC dimwit, lame brain and knucklehead, but preserves the New Englander's ''buffle-brain'' and ''chowderhead.''

Southern states provided a rich lode for Mr. Cassidy's field workers. In the Ozarks, to be baffled is to be corked. Thus, a pupil who cannot answer a teacher's question says ''she corked me.''

In parts of Appalachia, a conceited person is ''briggity.''

A native of Maryland, especially a Catholic, is a craw thumper.

In coastal South Carolina, the team cataloged dozens of words and phrases from Gullah, a melodious patois of Old English and African speech. Of someone who can keep a secret it might be said that ''he'll eat cooter liver befo' he'll tell.'' A cooter, for the uninitiated, is a freshwater turtle, and its liver, we may suppose, tastes awful.

In the deep South, a person who is having a run of good luck is living in high cotton. One who is having a hard time is walking through low cotton.

New Englanders have another word for good spirits. A cheerful person is ''chirk,'' as in, ''She was feeling low yesterday, but she's chirked up today.''

French and Spanish influences have contributed to many regionalisms. In the Cajun parts of Louisiana a little bayou or a stream that tends to run dry in the summer is a coulee (cou-lay), out of the French verb ''couler,'' to flow. In variant spellings the word crops up in Wisconsin and Minnesota, where it becomes a ravine or a valley.

In the Southwest, a charco is a pool, a puddle or a waterhole.

In California, if one wants to let a woman know that her slip is showing, one whispers, ''Charlie's dead.'' Who was Charlie? The origin must baffle etymologists, but there it is.

For another proper name: In New England, a galley smokestack is known as a Charlie Noble. The story is that a merchant mariner in the early 1800s prided himself on his brass smokestack and insisted that it be kept properly shined. Seamen have been polishing Charlie Nobles ever since.

What's a commode? In New England it's a dresser, a set of drawers or a big wardrobe. In the South and Midwest, a commode is an indoor toilet.

Different regions treat ''corn'' differently. The fried patty that is made of meal and water is pone or cornpone in the South. Elsewhere, Mr. Cassidy's field workers found the dodger, the slapper and the corn cake.

So it goes. There is richness everywhere. For the word lover, Mr. Cassidy's monument is pure delight.

The volumes come from Harvard University Press, and they're not cheap, but our material pure delights rarely are.

James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.

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