American wordsmiths are a quiet bunch, rarely shaking the beehive of lexicography. But not the late Frederic Cassidy. He broke out his philologist shovel and set to work unearthing the buried gems of American regional English.
Mr. Cassidy, arguably the Michael Jordan of lexicographers, started a decades-long project in 1963: the "Dictionary of American Regional English" (DARE). William Safire of The New York Times was so moved by the compilation of regional words that he called it "the most exciting linguistic project going on in the United States."
But the project, which is currently up to the letter O, is more than words. It's equal parts journalism, storytelling, and oral history. Armed with 1,847 questions from Cassidy, fieldworkers fanned out across the US from 1965 to1970 and interviewed everyone from fishermen in Apalachicola, Fla., to homemakers in Palm Springs, Calif., to find the crass, curious, and courtly words they use.
Interviews were conducted anywhere people were willing, from bathrooms to butcher shops. Barbara Vass, a fieldworker, reminisced in a letter: "One night I asked questions sitting in a farmhouse hallway. A blanket was draped across the doorway of a small room off the hall; on the other side of the blanket, my informant sat in the dark, candling the eggs for her egg route the next day."
Some 1,002 communities in all 50 states were given all or part of the questionnaire, with queries like: "A damp cellar would smell like what?"; "What do you say to make a horse go faster?"; "What names do you have around here for different kinds of men's haircuts?" Regional novels, diaries, and even the Yellow Pages were scoured for unique words.
"The South and the South/midland are where the oral traditions have held on the longest," says Joan Hall, who took over as editor in chief after Cassidy's passing last year. In the South, she explains, areas have long been settled, and sometimes lacked good schools.
Ms. Hall and her colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, are about halfway through the dictionary. They are now writing entries for the letters P, Q, R, and the first half of S. They work at a snail's pace, combing through 2.5 million words and phrases cataloged during fieldwork. Nobody is sure when the dictionary will be finished. Volume I took 15 years and has some 12,000 expressions. Every word is an audible dessert, dripping with the sauce of regionalism.
If you're not from Georgia, someone there might try to "cooter-hash" you (trick or deceive). In the North Atlantic region, you might ask a pregnant woman if she's been "eating dried apples." A washing machine broken beyond repair in Maine may be "jizzicked," and if some says you "cut a hog" in Wisconsin, you're doing something beyond your ability. In Arkansas, exceedingly happy people are as pleased as a "basketful of possum-heads."
Nobody is sure how often such word-delicacies as "biscuit shooter" (a camp cook), "bombazine" (umbrella), and "belsnickeling" (ringing bells and collecting treats during Christmas, mostly in Pennsylvania and Virginia) are spoken. But don't worry, says Walt Wolfram, a social linguist at North Carolina State University: Regional words are not in danger of dying off.
"We have new regionalisms that crop up all the time, [but] they probably aren't as recognized," Mr. Wolfram says. "As a linguist looking at [DARE], I'm amazed at how many words I don't know."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor