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Book Captures Uniquely American Lingo

Dictionary of American Regional English offers taste of regional US

The Dictionary of American Regional English contains more than 60,000 words and phrases from different parts of the United States.
The Dictionary of American Regional English contains more than 60,000 words and phrases from different parts of the United States.
June Simms

Many words in American English, like honeyfuggle and pinkletink, don’t show up in standard dictionaries. But you can find them in the Dictionary of American Regional English. The fifth and final volume of the massive work has just been published.

Work on the Dictionary of American Regional English - known by its acronym DARE - began in 1965 under Frederic Cassidy, an English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He and a team of 80 researchers traveled across the United States to document words used by Americans to describe their daily lives.

Joan Houston Hall, the dictionary’s chief editor, says the final project is based on almost 2.5 million responses to more than 1600 questions.

"The questionnaire dealt with all sorts of things that have to do with our daily lives - from time and weather and food and clothing and farming and plants and animals and religion, health, disease, honesty, dishonesty - all the parts of our lives that we have words for."

DARE includes words, phrases, pronunciations and even bits of grammar and syntax that vary from one part of the country to another.

"That strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street can be the parking strip, the parking, the parkway, the berm, the terrace, the tree lawn, the tree belt, the tree box, and the verge and the swale and other things, too," she says. "It’s amazing to see the tremendous variety of terms used for the same thing."

The first volume, released in 1985, contains words beginning with the letters A to C. The fifth and final volume starts with slab, a concrete road, and ends with zydeco, a kind of music popular in Louisiana. Hall says these words can show where the people who use them are from.

For example, in some parts of the country, a carbonated drink is a soda; in others, it’s called pop. Some Americans cook with a frying pan; others use a skillet. And a party where everyone brings food is either a potluck or a pitch-in.

Linguist Ben Zimmer writes about language for the Boston Globe. He recalls the excitement at a January meeting of the American Dialect Society, when Joan Houston Hall gave delegates a preview of the final volume.

"We all gathered together in the conference room, and Joan showed off volume five,"  Zimmer says. "And there were audible gasps in the room. I mean, it might as well have been accompanied by an angelic chorus. People just wanted to touch it like it was the holy relic or something."

So, if you look up honeyfuggle in the Dictionary of American Regional English, you’ll discover that it means to cheat or trick. The earliest uses were in the 1800s hundreds in the South. Pinkletink is the name that people in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, have given to a kind of tree frog.

These and almost 60,000 other colorful words and terms offer a linguistic tour all around the United States.

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