On to Z!

by Translation Guy on April 2, 2012

“On to Z” was Fred Cassidy’s tag-line. 50 years ago the American Dialect Society appointed him editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE). Now Volume V (Sl to Z), the final volume in the initial series, has been completed.

The DARE Project was an ambitious effort to document the local words and phrases used by Americans regionally, to answer the three favorite questions of dialect researchers, “Where do they say it this way? Where do they say it that way? Where don’t they say it at all?”

Cassidy, who died at age 92 in 2000, had originally hoped the dictionary would be complete by 1976, but the first volume wasn’t finished until 9 years later. Cassidy never wavered in his life’s work. “On to Z!” is carved on his gravestone.

The American Dialect Society had been talking about a regional dictionary since the 19th Century, but the project didn’t get off the ground until 1965, when Cassidy and 80 field workers took their tape recorders to the streets and back roads of America. Using DARE “Word Wagons,” campers that were specially outfitted with reel-to-reel tape recorders and  other tools researchers needed to interview the locals, Researchers researchers eventually recorded 2777 informants in 1002 communities over the six-year effort.  Life-long residency was a requirement for interviewees, and researchers preferred the old timers to get information on as many years of dialect history as they could. The survey was 1600 questions long.

NPR has posted some of the interviews here, featuring some real characters just oozing local color. They remind me of the old timers I used to know, who regardless of pronounciation, always knew how to tell a good story, a social skill that seems to have gone out of fashion once radio came along. It really brings back some memories for me of the crazy stories I used to hear from my Aunt Bertha and Uncle Lester, and that whole bunch up on the chicken farm outside Lebanon, NH.

Makes me wonder how much this detailed portrait of the American language as it was spoken in the ‘60s reflects current regional differences.

The good news for dialect lovers is that American regionalisms are not disappearing. The verbal fire hose of mass media blather spreads vocabulary and familiarity with standard forms ubiquitous, but is definitely not making Americans all sound the same. Regional dialects are thriving. Although some dialects are dying out, for example on the Sea Islands of North Carolina or the hollering they do Appalachian hollows, other regional dialects are growing more distinctive, such as those spoken in the Great Lakes, you betcha. As linguist Carmen Fought puts it: “People want to talk like the people they want to be like.”

More details on the remarkable achievement of DARE in interviews with current Chief Editor Joan Houston Hall and Wordnik founder Erin McKeam who charmingly explaining the history and significance of this vast linguistic project.


  1. He Hate Me says:

    The scrolling words have some real winners. Pinkletink. Polynose. Rumplekammer. How did this words ever get overlooked to make it into the common everyday language of all Americans?

  2. David Kaatz says:

    Honestly, I would be happier if the regional dialects did diappear…like Kentucky. I simply cannot stand how people talk in Kentucky, and Virginia, and West Virginia, and half of Louisiana and………….

  3. Puppy says:

    I did not recognize any words that scrolled on the video. Although, some could easily make into an episode of Two and a Half Men. (Zippy Stick, Valley Tassel, and Waffle Stomper) You can use your own imagination.

    • Ken says:

      I wonder how many were just made up by people with time on their hands trying to entertain the interviewers?

  4. Warren Paul says:

    I spent 16 years in Minnesota and I never heard the words you and betcha in a sentence together. I think this is something that Hollywood made famous from the movie Fargo and everyone jumped on the bandwagon.

    • Ken says:

      That’s interesting. I guess “you betcha” is movie shorthand for defining a place, like “fuggedaboutit” which people in NYC only use when they are trying to act like they are from NYC, or the “scree” of that hawk sound whenver the camera opens on the wilderness.

  5. Slavko Minic says:

    Cassidy would be proud and very happy to know that his project has continued.

  6. I watched the whole youtube video. The history was interesting, but I don’t really see how significant this body of work is to the whole scheme of American language. I mean, sure, some use different words, but then again how many languages are in the world and how many of these people throughout the states came from different places. Plus, look at the education levels of the ancestery in some of the smaller towns. If you never learned a word for something, just make one up.

    • Ken says:

      Agreed, Jan. Maybe it’s a kind of “Blue Highways’ kind of thing, folk byways by Charles Kuralt, if you go back that far. Personally I like those dusty corners and rutted wagon road kind of stuff.

  7. I’m thinking the two questions “Where do they say it this way? Where do they say it that way?” could be rolled into one. Don’t you come up with the same type of answer for both?

  8. I agree with Carmen fought. People do try to sould like others they emulate. How else can Madonna explain her accent?

  9. anglia says:

    There is no way I would complete a 1600 question survey. They must have been compensated…handsomely.

    • Ken says:

      … or had a lot of time on their hands. Maybe that’s another reason they went after old-timers sitting in rockers on the front porch

  10. I wonder how relavent work from the 60’s compares to how the population is now. I would think that a lot of the language would be influenced by entertainment nowadays.

  11. Does this have anything to do with dialect as well, or just certain words that are used. If you ask me, the words are not the problem, it’s how the words come out that gets frustrating (or even down right annoying).

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