The Dictionary of American Regional English has finally reached its final word - “zydeco” - as researchers wrap up almost 50 years of work charting the rich variety of American speech.
The dictionary’s official publication date is March 20 but lexicographers and word fans have been celebrating ever since its fifth and final volume emerged earlier this year.
“It truly is America’s dictionary,” Ben Zimmer, a language columnist and lexicographer, told a Washington, D.C. news conference on Thursday.
He said when the final printed volume was delivered to its longtime editor, Joan Houston Hall, at a meeting of fellow dialect scholars: “There were audible gasps in the room.”
The Dictionary of American Regional English’s (DARE) 60,000 entries running from “A” to “zydeco,” a style of Louisiana Cajun music, serve as a comprehensive sample of how American speech changes from region to region.
That space between sidewalk and curb? Depending on what part of the United States it is in, it can be called “parking,” “devil’s strip,” “swale,” “parkway” or “tree lawn.”
Hall, who has headed the DARE project since 2000, said she was convinced fears that American English was becoming homogenized through television and mass media were unfounded.
“I don’t buy it. Yes, language changes at different rates and at different places,” she said. “But most of the words among our family and friends that are regional we don’t even recognize as regional.”
Although the idea of a dictionary of American dialects had been around since the 1880s, the project did not take shape until 1962, when Frederick Cassidy, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was appointed editor.
The DARE project was based on interviews carried out in more than 1,000 communities from 1965 to 1970 by University of Wisconsin researchers.
They asked Americans about their ways of talking about kitchen implements, housing, animals, diseases, food, music and more.
For the next several decades, editors sifted the 2.3 million responses and a mass of written materials including newspapers, letters and diaries ranging from the Colonial period to the present.
The dictionary, published in five volumes by Harvard University’s Belknap Press and running to over 5,500 pages, includes words from about 70 languages, ranging from Bantu to Lithuanian to Choctaw. It retails for about $545.
Hall, who took over the project with Cassidy’s death in 2000, said the last volume took longer to complete, about 10 years, because of the wealth of materials that had become available online.
“We felt that there was so much of value we didn’t dare ignore it,” she said at the news conference at the National Endowment for the Humanities, one of the book’s main sponsors.
Dictionary entries include “bealing” for an abscess, “bear claw” and “kolacky” for types of pastries, “calf rope” for surrender in children’s games, “dew poison” for a foot rash, “Lucy Bowles” for diarrhea, “rippet” for a disturbance or fight, and “pogonip” to describe a thick, cold fog.