As a professional linguist and lifelong word lover, I always assumed I had a good handle on regional differences in the way people talk. But in 1975, when I arrived in Madison, Wis.—the seventh state I’ve called home—I discovered major holes in my lexicon. “Would you like some bakery?” a friend asked, referring, I soon learned, not to an actual pastry shop but to the pastries within. BRATS ON THE TERRACE, proclaimed a local poster, not in an effort to segregate unruly children but to invite people to eat bratwurst alfresco. I soon had a long list of new vocabulary words, including bubbler (water fountain), kringle (a kind of pastry), and golden birthday, which occurs the year a person’s age and birth date align (when someone born on the 10th turns 10, for instance).
I’ve been working on similar lists ever since. As chief editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), a massive effort to collect and record local differences in American English, I spend my days researching the countless examples of regional words and phrases and trying to track their origins. Launched in 1965 at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the project is based on thousands of interviews, newspapers, government records, novels, letters, and diaries.
When I joined the team as assistant editor, we were working on alphabetical volume one, A–C, which Harvard University Press published about a decade later. Three volumes on, we have picked up some nice compliments (Tom Wolfe called DARE his “favorite reading”; William Safire deemed it “absolutely remarkable”) and notable users, including scholars, writers, physicians, lawyers, dialect coaches, and forensic linguists, one of whom pinpointed a kidnapper based on a regionalism (devil strip—Google it) used in his ransom note. Next year we’re scheduled to publish the final installment (Slab–Z).
But even as we near the finish line, I encounter a common misperception: people seem to think that American English has become homogenized, making the dictionary a catalog of differences long since flattened out by media, business, and population shifts. There’s a grain of truth to that. Certain regional terms have been weakened by commercial influences, like Subway’s sub sandwich, which seems to be nibbling away at hero, hoagie, and grinder. It’s also true that strangers tend to talk to each other in a somewhat homogeneous vocabulary, and that more Americans are moving away from their linguistic homes as they relocate for school, work, or love.
But DARE’s research shows that American English is as varied as ever. The language is diversified by immigration, of course, but also people’s creative license and the resilient nature of local dialects. We have dozens of ways to refer to a remote place, for instance, including the boonies, the sticks, the tules, the puckerbrush, and the willywags. The proverbial village idiot, in such a place, might still be described as unfit to carry guts to a bear or pour piss out of a boot. If his condition is temporary, a Southerner might call him swimmy-headed, meaning dizzy. And if his home is dirty, a Northeasterner might call it skeevy, an adaptation of schifare, the Italian verb “to disgust.”
As these examples suggest, the regionalisms that persist are often not those we learn from books or teachers or newspapers; they are the words we use with friends and family, the phrases we’ve known forever and never questioned until someone “from away” remarked on them.
Still, it’s the nature of language to change, and it’s possible that many of DARE’s entries will eventually be dislodged from daily use. When that happens, the forthcoming electronic version of DARE will amend the record. So we’ll always have a guide for how to speak American.
Hall is the chief editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English (familiarly known as DARE).