University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
Link to University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
Link to University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
The State of Wisconsin Collection

Page View

Batt, James R. (ed.) / Wisconsin Academy review
Volume 20, Number 4 (Fall 1974)

Cassidy, Frederic G.
Stalking American regionalisms,   pp. 6-8

Page 6

   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
   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,
                Sta lk¢ingj
             A                Al
                   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.

Go up to Top of Page