Batt, James R. (ed.) / Wisconsin Academy review
Volume 20, Number 4 (Fall 1974)
Cassidy, Frederic G.
Stalking American regionalisms, pp. 6-8
American desk dictionaries, good as they are, are always pressed for space and have to be selective. For obvious reasons they dare not neglect the "standard" words-those that will be printed in books or used in serious speech for the whole nation. So, in keep- ing to desk size, their problem be- comes one of determining what they may most safely omit. The customary answer has been to leave out the words which charac- terize only one part of the country, the regional and local words. Although some are included, a much greater number than any- body realizes have been omitted. Even the "unabridged" dictionaries are abridged; their source is al- most entirely the printed language. Thus many thousands of words and expressions that people speak every day of their lives in one part of the United States or another, but which there is little occasion to print, remain unrecorded and, out- side their own section, largely unknown. A word is a linguistic unit which transfers meaning from one speak- er to another. It is just as real, just as much of an actuality, whether it happens to be written or spoken. Indeed, the prestige we give to literacy and the written word ob- scures the fact that language is primarily spoken and only sec- ondarily written. Whether a word is used by only a small community or the entire nation, it is still ex- actly the same type of language unit, and the student of language, the dictionary m a k e r, needs to know about it. At the University of Wisconsin- Madison we are trying to fulfill a plan that originated eighty- five years ago: to compile a dictionary of all the regional and local words that are or have been recently used in one section or another of the United States but not throughout the entire nation. The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), begun in 1965 under the writer's direction, is now getting close to publishing the first of three volumes which will be necessary to present, define, and illustrate our many thousands of regional words and expressions. With publication, 6 Sta lk¢ingj A Al American Regjionalisms A progress report on the Dictionary of American Regional English By Frederic G. Cassidy the chief purpose for which the American Dialect Society was founded in 1889 will be fulfilled. Some of these words, with old- country roots in England, Scot- land, Ireland, are still preserved locally though gone from stand- ard English-for example, a be- som (as Shakespeare spelled it), pronounced "beezum," for a broom, found in West Virgina. Others are foreign words, natural- ized in some sections of the United States but not in other parts of the English-speaking world-for ex- ample, a chook (from French toque) for a knitted woolen stock- ing-cap, used in northern Michi- gan; or grass-onions (translated from Norwegian) for chives, used in some Wisconsin communities. Still others are new, developed by traditional word-forming rules of the English language, though not generally adopted-for example to aggress, back-formed from aggres- sion, and meaning something very close to oppose, attack: "She'll be able to aggress all obstacles and overcome them," was heard in southeastern Minnesota. These unfamiliar words and ex- pressions used by Americans from other parts of the nation sound as strange to us as ours (of which we are often unaware) sound to them. How does the lexicographer find these usages? Some, of course, are in print in regional novels and stories, in diaries and letters, in biographies and travel accounts. Others are found in personal col- umns, especially in county and small-town newspapers written by and for local people. While these are not always trustworthy sources, they cannot be ignored, and DARE has excerpted several hundred such books. We know, too, that the lan- guage of traditional trades-such as fishing, coal mining, tobacco- growing-has many terms known to everybody in the community where that trade occurs, though hardly heard outside. Everybody Frederic G. Cassidy is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and director of the Dictionary of American Regional English project.
Copyright 1974 by the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters.| For information on re-use, see http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/Copyright