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This American Dictionary Is Full of Words You've Never Heard Before

An ambitious attempt to document the differences in regional English

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It’s finally finished. Since 1965, linguists, lexicographers, and wordsmiths have been waiting for the editors of the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), charting under-the-radar regional language nationwide, to reach the end of the alphabet. They gifted us with the fifth and final volume last year, and now the whole thing is available online.

There is a delightful muchness in it. The standard dictionary necessarily focuses on what we all say, but it should not disqualify a word as English if only some of us say it. DARE is a much different English than we are used to seeing gathered in one place. From 1965 to 1970, the editor and his staff covered 1,002 communities nationwide, asking 2,777 people what they called 1,847 various items. The finished DARE contains 60,000 words and 2,985 maps. Tabulating all of the data was so gargantuan a task that the original editor didn’t even live to see the project completed.

It was worth the wait. Only from DARE can we learn that, across this great nation, dust bunnies have been referred to with a dazzling array of terms such as fooskies, ghost manurerich relativescussywop, and more colorfully, pussyslut’s wool, and yes, negro wool as well. Things get almost poetic with souls and even men, and my favorite is the apparently rather taciturn upstate New Yorker who gave the local term as type of fuzz.

Elsewhere, one has found the Georgian term for firefly third shift mosquito, and the South Carolinian whose response to “What do you say to make a horse go faster?” was “Whip the hell out of him.” Pimples, predictably for something intimate and annoying, go under a major array of colorful terms: festershinkeyspimpsCanadian perjunketycat boilspep-jinnies, and fuck bumps (?). Some areas get creative with even the better-known terms, such as those in Washington State who have called them zids and those in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and elsewhere who have spoken of acme.

However, the volume does suffer from something inherent to such projects: Lingo is evanescent. By the time you capture terms like this between two covers, they are often obsolete. This is one reason why DARE, in all of its majesty, cannot help but qualify as an achievement more archival than lexicographic. Because of its regional focus, as well as the homogenization of American English, DARE’s long gestation has brought it to light in a world where we process language differently than people did in the "Mad Men" era that DARE was created in. Although DARE is supplemented with references to written sources from after 1970, the work is essentially a record of American regionalisms such as they were in Eisenhower-era America. The staff even preferred to interview people 60 or older, who had lived long lives in their communities soaking up the local language.

DARE is valuable as a documentary rescue mission, in that the regional diversity it documents has been diluting since after World War II. Things were once quite different, with middle class Philadelphians in the early 1800s  saying agin for again while the same sorts in New York were saying sich for such and guv for gave and moneyed Charlestonians were saying gyardin for garden.

But the media have exposed all Americans to the same ways of speaking, and Americans are less likely to spend their lives in one community than they once were. As such, the southern drawl is lighter, the old-time New Yawk accent can be easier to hear in an old movie than in real life, and many younger Americans draw a blank on the “Yankee” accent that “Family Guy,” set in Rhode Island, occasionally parodies.

Thanks to the taped interviews that DARE included, listenable here, anyone can now hear actual people who spoke that dialect. Or, DARE shows us that soda and pop are hardly the only two terms for soft drink that have divided Americans: Depending on where you were, you may have also heard people calling their sodas dopebellywash or—apparently in one corner of Florida—slop. And who wouldn’t want to know that to let a woman know her slip was showing, Americans were given to such a panoply of expressions such as “It’s snowing down south,” “Your father likes you better than your mother,” “Whitey’s out of jail,” or even just “Hey”? (No, that last one was not the guy from upstate New York)

Yet we moderns process American English differently than women who wore slips, or the men who were warning them about their expsosure. These days, there is plenty of interest in non-standard language—but today, America slangs together more. Americanisms—geographically promiscuous items such as veggietwerkselfie, and “My bad!”—interest us more than regionalisms such as that people call smoking marijuana smoking out on the west coast but smoking up on the east Also, our comfort with the profane—which has produced the online Urban Dictionary—is a foothold that will be elusive for DARE, which typically of its era gives only light coverage to, say, what might happen when a slip came off. Also, while we're on the "urban," while DARE was composed as a look at the kinds of language standard dictionaries leave out, since its time, standard American English has increasingly incorporated Black English. The “Ebonic” cadence and slang repertoire of Aziz Ansari, the “yo”-bedecked tweets of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and the “blaccent” that any “American Idol” contestant adopts unthinkingly to render modern pop would strike the time traveller from as recently as 1980 as strikingly “Negroid.”

DARE gives us a portrait of a different time. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t addictive, especially now that you can peruse it without risking sciatica. The online version even has a feature that skims entries randomly as if you were curled up with it on a rainy day. One survey question was “What words or expressions are used around here about a man who is very eager to get married?” Among my favorite answers were hornyhot nutswag-ass, and from one gentleman in California, damn fool.

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