Skip to main content

Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant helps sustain DARE to completion

November 1, 2011 By Chris DuPre

Whenever she appears on a popular statewide Wisconsin Public Radio offering, Joan Houston Hall can sense the hunger people have for regional sayings and their meanings.

“Every time I’m on ‘The Larry Meiller Show,’ the phone lines are full, and people are so excited,” says Hall, chief editor of “The Dictionary of American Regional English.” “Their calls will start with comments like ‘There’s this phrase my grandmother used to say….’ It’s so vital to them.”

A labor of love decades in the making, “The Dictionary of American Regional English” (DARE), housed in the College of Letters and Science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is finishing the alphabet with Volume 5, covering words from Sl- to Z. That will be followed by Volume 6, filled with supplementary material, and a digital edition encompassing the entire enterprise.

The completion of the print and digital editions is being aided through a recent $500,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation of New York. That continues the foundation’s substantial support, which has spanned more than three decades.

“The fifth volume just went to press,” Hall says. “It will officially be published in March by Harvard University Press.”

In addition to the Mellon Foundation’s backing, DARE is supported financially by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), other private foundations and many individuals.

“The Mellon Foundation’s support through the years has meant survival for the dictionary,” Hall says. “We have had a unique combination of federal, foundation, individual and UW funding sources. The College of Letters and Science and the Graduate School have combined to provide us a project assistant on an almost regular basis. In recent years, the Graduate School has been very generous in terms of granting research committee funding.

“It has been a remarkable coalition of people who care and includes literally hundreds of individuals,” she says. “These are people who just love language and want to see this project finished.”

The DARE project grew out of the American Dialect Society, formed in 1889. For years, its members had expressed hope of creating a compendium of American dialect terms, without much success. Frederic G. Cassidy, a professor of English at UW–Madison, finally took action. In the late 1940s, he and Audrey Duckert conducted a pilot project in 50 Wisconsin communities, which tested the extensive questionnaire they proposed to use for the entire country.

Even then, not much occurred until the society’s 1962 annual meeting, where Cassidy read a paper titled “The ADS Dictionary-How Soon?” That resulted in his appointment as chief editor of the proposed dictionary. A group of 80 fieldworkers conducted research in 1,002 communities across the country between 1965 and 1970, and that work is the basis of DARE.

Cassidy oversaw the DARE project until his death in 2000. Hall, who had worked at his side since 1975, was named chief editor.

“What’s nice is that Volume 5 will be published in 2012, which is the 50th anniversary of Fred’s appointment as editor,” Hall says.

The DARE editorial staff is hard at work on Volume 6.

“Volume 6 contains hundreds of wonderful contrastive maps,” Hall says. “If you want to look up all the synonyms for that strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street, or for a sub sandwich or for a dragonfly, you can flip through five volumes of text to look at the maps to see that this one’s North and this one’s South and this one’s East,” she says. “In this supplementary volume, you’ll have them laid out right in front of you, so you can see these wonderfully contrastive distributions showing the same item with all of its different names.”

Within Volume 6 will be a complete index to all of the regional, usage and etymological labels in the dictionary.

“So if you want to know what words are characteristic of Connecticut or Alaska or Texas, you can look up those state names and find every entry in which that state is listed in a regional label in the five volumes,” she says. “That will be very useful.”

Volume 6 also will have some of the original fieldwork data.

“For instance, you can look at a data summary for ‘What do you call dust balls under the bed?’ You’d find almost 175 names, such as dust bunnies or dust kitties or house moss or moots or woozies, all these other wonderful names,” Hall says. “Those will be listed in these volumes, so people interested in all the various terms will be able to go to this volume and get the raw data.”

The print edition of Volume 6 will be extremely useful for teachers, Hall says.

“If their classrooms are not wired, they can bring it in to class and have it there for lessons on regional variation without needing anything more,” she said. “Volume 6 works best with the five text volumes but will also be useful on its own. If we can get everything to press by the end of January for Volume 6, it will come out on the fall list for 2012.”

The digital edition is set to launch in 2013 as part of the Harvard University Press Centennial Celebration.

“Almost 10 years ago, we realized it was important to get working on an XML version,” Hall says. “Many of our panelists for NEH and NSF grant proposals were pushing us strongly to get going on this. A couple of very generous donors gave us the money to hire a programmer.”

The electronic edition is being created by iFactory in conjunction with Harvard University Press.