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Life Among the Lexicographers

By Joseph M. Romero | HUMANITIES, March/April 2004 | Volume 25, Number 2

Dictionaries are supposed to be anonymous. If you happen not to know what a word means, you just look it up, and a faceless, utilitarian definition wells up to the surface. But there are people known in the trade as lexicographers--Greek for “those who write down lists of words”--who, for each potential dictionary entry, spend hours pouring over slips of paper, books, and surfing the Web to home in on a word, trace its history, and present it to you. It is a kind of writing that wants to go unnoticed, as I learned when I wrote articles for the grand-daddy (or pop-pop, as some say in mid-Atlantic coastal states) of all Latin dictionaries. It was the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, housed in Munich, Germany.

It may disconcert the reader to learn that there are actual people making principled and personal decisions about what to include and what to exclude in the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE). The fourth volume was published in December of 2002 under the chief editorship of Joan Houston Hall. “There are always cases where what will seem ‘regional’ to one editor will seem perfectly normal to another,” said Hall. “Then you have to make a decision.”

When in doubt, DARE editors tend to err on the side of inclusion. Many words are amply attested--that is, there are plenty of recorded uses. Others appear only once. Should poorly attested words be excluded? The phrase trade-last, for one--meaning a kind of quid pro quo--”I’ll say something nice about you if you say something nice about me first”--is found scattered throughout the country, especially among older speakers. A regional variant, last-go-trade, is found in the middle and south Atlantic and has an entry of its own; but what about Alaskan trade, which means exactly the same thing but appears only once in the sources available to DARE? “It was important to include Alaskan trade even with only one instance, because it’s a wonderful example of the process of folk etymology,” says Hall. “Someone who is unfamiliar with the folk tradition of trading compliments hears the phrase last-go-trade, doesn’t quite understand it, and tries to make it meaningful by substituting a word that is familiar. Since Alaska is, to most Americans, a far-away and exotic place, it makes sense to the hearer that the unusual custom would be an Alaskan trade.”

Some terms may be widely recognizable, but carry alternate meanings in particular regions. The back forty, which means a large, remote, often barren stretch of land, and is used throughout the north and the west, takes on a figurative cast when lumberjacks in New England use it to refer to an out-of-the-way place. And if someone is wasting your time, a Michigander might say, “He’s been plowing the back forty.”

Modeled after the Oxford English Dictionary, DARE seeks to be a comprehensive source for words that will find no home in standard English dictionaries. With professional linguists, historians, museum curators, and casual researchers and committed browsers alike, the dictionary is becoming a fixture on the list of reference tools. Even actors and directors have used DARE to check the authenticity of their accents or the accuracy of their idiom-- as actress Diane Keaton did for Manhattan Murder Mystery and director Michael Mann for Last of the Mohicans.

The DARE project was founded at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in the 1960s, and a lexicographer and professor of English, Frederic Cassidy, was selected to take the helm. With graduate student Audrey Duckert--now a retired professor of English from the University of Massachusetts--Cassidy designed a program to collect regional words from the living language. From 1965 through 1970, Cassidy and Duckert dispatched eighty fieldworkers in selected regions of the United States, armed with detailed questionnaires and tape recorders. An archive of samples can be found on the DARE website. In addition to the nearly 3,000 interviews they conducted, the DARE staff has culled words from sources that range from eighteenth-century diaries, small-town newspapers, fiction, and folklore, to television shows, advertisements, and the Internet.

A page of queries on the DARE website asks readers to send an e-mail if they can give a definition for a word, name the region in which it is found, or report whether it is still in use. One current question asks about the word sloven, which may be a type of wagon: “We have two quotations from New England (one from the 60s) and one from Canada. Is this still known, and what exactly is it?” Another asks about speckled britches: “‘An edible green.’ A source on the Web identifies this as ‘evening primrose,’ but we’d like to know if anyone else knows this term and what they apply it to.”

Some entries reveal cultural stereotypes or couch them in humor--which the dictionary marks joc.--as in the five-page list of terms beginning with Irish. An Irish nightingale is a bullfrog, an Irish hurricane refers to calm seas, Irish confetti are bricks or stones thrown in a fight, and a person might give an Irish whisper at top volume when a true whisper, or silence, would do.

Dictionary writing is something of an odd fish. A reader’s appreciation of its writing is usually limited to utilitarian acceptance or, particularly in the case of DARE, the “Oh, neat!” effect--”I didn’t know Mainers called ancestors seed folks.” While an underlying goal of lexicography is certainly to delight, the chief aim is to teach. Such lessons are stripped of the personality of the individual who collected the evidence, decided what was important enough to include, and actually wrote the definition. The lexicographer’s art lies in the choices and order of evidence presented.

How is a dictionary written? Of course, with the introduction of the computer, things are changing and are bound to change still more when the DARE archives are coded and processed electronically, but for now the business of lexicography goes on as it has for a century or more. Each editor is also a contributing author. Editors proceed straight through the words alphabetically, working from small slips of paper, previous regional dictionaries, data culled from the fieldwork, and words submitted through the DARE website.

After gathering the word--called a lemma, from the Greek for “a plucking”--and sorting out how manyexamples are available, the lexicographer plots out on a map where they came from--as with wines, this is called their provenance--and tries to establish the earliest and latest recorded uses. When that business is concluded, the lexicographer is ready to write: that is, lay out the word, its spelling, pronunciation, meanings, and a historical survey of recorded uses. To make visual the provenance and possible diffusion of a word, he or she may draw up a map: a regional linguistic map, which corresponds in a general way to the geographical map of the United States. The author then passes the article to a second editor to review; Hall, as chief editor, has final approval over each dictionary definition.

Even when we are “just speaking English,” we are speaking varieties thereof. Part of the mission of the DARE project is to record what is local about our language. Standard English only tells part of the story--it does not constitute the full range of American Englishes of which standard American English is only a subset. DARE offers a complex and comprehensive account of American English--and Americans--as a whole. It assembles a testimony of who we have been and who we are at our most elemental level: the words we live in.

There is a pervasive myth in our society that we all talk, or need to talk, the same language. DARE shows that our language groups will always be partial, local, in short, regional. Leaving aside slang, which it deems too evanescent, DARE sets its sights on words used consistently within specific regions, but also tracks usage within various age, gender, class, and other sub-groups. Accompanying maps that lay out the geographical distribution of words are the clearest evidence that we, as a nation, are not as homogenous as we think. Each of us could without too much difficulty make up a list of non-slang words that fell outside of our formal education--in the southern midlands, toothpicks may be called quitting sticks, in Pennsylvania a sledding slope might be called a rutschie, or out West a animal team driver might be called a skinner.

How do the forces of mass culture affect the study of linguistic regionalism? They do complicate matters, if only a little. Take, for example, the relatively innocuous word skrid, meaning “a piece, scrap, bit.” With written references appearing as early as 1860 in the Atlantic Monthly (“They’re glass chips, and brittle shavings, slender pinkish scrids”) and continuing for more than a century in oral and print sources throughout Maine and New Hampshire, Hall reasonably thought she had this one nailed down as a New Englander. But with twenty years elapsing since her last citation, Hall took to the Internet to see if she could find something more recent. Lo and behold, she found a reference to a website of a printer based in California. It turns out the printer was dating a woman from Maine who must have shared her regionalism with him. What are the chances of skrid catching fire in California? Probably not very good, but the example shows how contemporary realities can alter the distribution of where we find regionalisms on a linguistic map. Will the word flower in its new home or will the bearer move back to New England with his girlfriend? It is hard to predict.

Hall manages to integrate her life with her work. She hikes in the Porcupine Mountains--known to locals as “The Porkies”--and enjoys preparing and eating foreign cuisine. Hall and the other editors at DARE are working steadily to complete the fifth volume (Sl-Z) and a sixth and final volume of supplementary data. The life of a lexicographer is one of constant fieldwork, because you cannot, and you cannot even want to, get away from the thing that you have spent a fair portion of your life studying: you study you.

About the Author

Joseph M. Romero is assistant professor of classics at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, VA. From 1999-2000 he was a fellow at the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae in Munich, supported by the American Philological Association and NEH.

Funding Information

The Dictionary of Regional American English has received $7,107,204 in NEH support since 1976. Its website can be found at