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A to Zydeco: Saving the Diversity of American English

The National Endowment for the Humanities completes its longest continuously-funded project - the Dictionary of American Regional English, a product of a long-term collaboration among federal and state agencies, private foundations, and individual donors.

After 50 years of research and editing, the Dictionary of American Regional English has reached the letter Z. Volume V, containing entries from slab through zydeco, was published today by Harvard University Press. This extraordinary record of the diversity of American English is the longest continuously-funded project of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The Dictionary, known as DARE, records American speech as it varies from place to place and as it has changed over more than three centuries. Not only has DARE proved essential to teachers, writers, and historians, it has also been used to solve crimes, diagnose illnesses, bolster court cases, answer congressional inquiries, and train actors. DARE’s almost 60,000 entries provide an astonishingly varied record of American regionalisms. There are 174 different words for the “dust bunnies” that collect under the bed. The dictionary shows the geographical breakdown of “soda” vs. “pop.” It differentiates “pot luck” from “pitch-in” regions, draws a line between “frying pan” and “skillet” territory, and puts forth a remarkable array of monikers for the dragonfly.

DARE is the result of a long-term collaboration among federal and state agencies, private foundations, and individual donors to support the unprecedented field research and the exacting editorial work of this daunting lexicographical effort. Winning support from panels of experts in competition with hundreds of projects decade after decade, DARE illustrates the commitment of the National Endowment for the Humanities to support projects with broad and lasting significance throughout America.

The dictionary began with field research in the 1960s, as fieldworkers in “word wagons” fanned out to 1,002 communities across America. They found natives of those communities who were willing to answer more than 1,600 questions about nearly all aspects of our daily lives—from time, weather, food, clothing, and farming, to religion, health, money, courtship, and families. Reel-to-reel tape recorders captured the voices of 1,843 of these people, yielding an invaluable collection of contrastive speech patterns and an incomparable oral history of mid-twentieth-century America.

The field research was augmented with quotations from thousands of printed sources such as newspapers, letters, diaries, novels, and government documents. The result is that each entry is an individual history of the word, from its earliest known occurrence throughout its lifespan in American English. For the last two volumes, DARE editors benefited from the recent wealth of digital resources that enhanced the treatment of entries.
The Dictionary of American Regional English project is part of the College of Letters and Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Joan Houston Hall is chief editor. It is a legacy of its fine staff and particularly of its indomitable founder, Frederic G. Cassidy, who died at age 92 in the year 2000.  Engraved on his gravestone are the words “On to Z.”

Judy Havemann is the Director of Communications at the National Endowment for the Humanities.