Friday, March 27, 2009

So that's what it means!

I was surprised to read a very short NPR news report about the almost-completed fourth volume of the Dictionary of American Regional English.

The makers of the Dictionary of American Regional English have nearly finished their latest edition. They've traveled the U.S. for decades noting regional dialect. A potluck dinner may be called a scramble in Illinois, or a pitch-in in Indiana. Then there's bobbasheely, a Gulf Coast noun meaning good friend. And there's the middle-American phrase once used by Bill Clinton, who said a critic of his "doesn't know me from Adam's off ox."

I'd never heard of this book before. Intrigued, I investigated further. It seems that the Dictionary project, known as DARE for short, has its own Web site., which describes the project as follows:

The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) is a reference tool unlike any other. Its aim is not to prescribe how Americans should speak, or even to describe the language we use generally, the "standard" language. Instead, it seeks to document the varieties of English that are not found everywhere in the United States--those words, pronunciations, and phrases that vary from one region to another, that we learn at home rather than at school, or that are part of our oral rather than our written culture. Although American English is remarkably homogeneous considering the tremendous size of the country, there are still many thousands of differences that characterize the various dialect regions of the United States. It is these differences that DARE records. Volume I, including extensive introductory matter and the letters A-C, was published in 1985 to the acclaim of scholarly and lay reviewers alike (it had gone into a fifth printing within a year of publication). Volume II (D-H) came out in 1991, Volume III (I-O) in 1996, and Volume IV (P-Sk) in 2002. Volume V, containing the remainder of the alphabet, is presently scheduled for publication in 2009. This will be followed by a volume containing the bibliography, maps, responses to the questions in our questionnaire, etc.

The Dictionary of American Regional English offers new discoveries on every page for most of us, making it clear that regional expressions still flourish throughout the United States. Following are some examples from Volume IV.

You might know that on pump means 'on credit' if you live in Nebraska, but do you know that a spring peeper or young frog on Nantucket, Massachusetts, is a pinkletink?

Depending on where you live, your conversation may include such beguiling terms as si-fog (Arkansas), pirok (Alaska), or pestle-tail (North Carolina); if you're invited to a potluck dinner, in Indiana you're likely to call it a pitch-in, while in northern Illinois it's a scramble; if you have a scrap or small piece of something, it's a scrid in New England, but in the South and South Midland it's a scrimption; if your youngsters play hopscotch, they may call it potsy in Manhattan, but sky blue in Chicago.

... More than sixty-five hundred entries pinpoint where you might live if your favorite card games are schafskopf or sixty-three; if you eat plate pie or potato bargain; if you drive down a pent road or run into a pogonip; or if you see a scaper or a scrunt.

The language of our everyday lives is captured in DARE, along with expressions our grandparents used but our children will never know.

Having long been interested in British regional dialects (see this article for a recent look at some very strange English expressions), the news of DARE makes my linguistic mouth water. I think I'm going to have to invest in a copy, if only to baffle my friends in conversation!



deadstick said...

I wonder if it has the Florida definition of "gopher". There's a species of tortoise down there that burrows in the ground and is formally known as a gopher tortoise...but Floridians just call it a gopher because they don't have the hairy kind.

Anonymous said...

There is a book of Southern and Texas sayings entitled "That Dog'll Really Hunt" that has Aggie terms, pronounciations for place names and terms such as "hotter than a Palacious parking lot," "hard as a light'ard knot," and other wonderful regional phrases.