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Dictionary of American Regional English nears completion

MADISON, Wis. — If you don't know what a "stone toter" is, the Dictionary of American Regional English is for you.

The collection of regional words and phrases is beloved by linguists and authors and used as a reference in professions as diverse as acting and police work. And now, after five decades of wide-ranging research that sometimes got word gatherers run out of suspicious small towns, the job is almost finished.

The dictionary team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is nearing completion of the final volume, covering "S" to "Z." A new federal grant will help the volume get published next year, joining the first four volumes already in print.

"It will be a huge milestone," said editor Joan Houston Hall.

The dictionary chronicles words and phrases used in distinct regions. Maps show where a submarine sandwich might be called a hero or grinder, or where a potluck — as in a potluck dinner or supper — might be called a pitch-in (Indiana) or a scramble (northern Illinois).

It's how Americans talk, not how they should talk.

Doctors have used it to communicate with patients and investigators have referred to it in efforts to identify criminals, such as the Unabomber.

Dialect coaches in Hollywood and on Broadway have used the dictionary's audio recordings of regional speakers to train actors.

Author Tom Wolfe has called the dictionary "my favorite reading."

In awarding the two-year, $295,000 grant that will get the final volume into print, National Science Foundation reviewers called the dictionary "one of the most visible public faces of linguistics," and a "national treasure."

The concept dates to 1889, when the American Dialect Society was formed. But the project did not start in earnest until 1965, when English professor Frederic Cassidy dispatched workers to 1,000 carefully chosen U.S. communities to interview residents and make audio recordings of their speech.

The field work took five years and collected 2.5 million different words and phrases.

Since then, linguists have painstakingly researched the words to decide which should be included. The dictionary project has about a dozen workers and a $750,000 annual budget.

Cassidy died in 2000, still looking toward publication of the final volume. His tombstone reads: "On to Z!"

The dictionary has occasionally been put to serious use.

Forensic linguist Roger Shuy said he occasionally referred to the dictionary when he studied the Unabomber's writings in the 1990s for clues to the writer's identity. His profile didn't help catch Ted Kaczynski, but it turned out to be pretty accurate: He guessed the Unabomber had a doctorate, grew up near Chicago and was older than some investigators initially believed.

Oh, and a "stone toter" is a fish found in the eastern United States.

Dictionary of American Regional English nears completion 03/22/09 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 4:49pm]

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