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Q&A: Editor of Dictionary of American Regional English finally reaches Z

Q&A: Editor of Dictionary of American Regional English finally reaches Z

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It took nearly five decades, but those producing the Dictionary of American Regional English finally reached Z.

The dictionary, known as DARE, is produced on the UW-Madison campus and includes a range of words, phrases, pronunciations and pieces of grammar that vary from one part of the United States to another.

Like a conventional dictionary, DARE is arranged alphabetically. But the multi-volume DARE goes on to not only give information about a word’s meaning but to indicate where people use it.

Americans, for example, have a collection of words for sandwiches served on a long bun that include meat, cheese, lettuce and tomato. The Dictionary of American Regional English can tell you -- and often show you via maps based on fieldwork -- where words such as hero, hoagie, grinder, sub, Cuban and the like are the local terms for this kind of sandwich.

The fifth volume of the dictionary, covering Sl through Z, now is available from Harvard University Press.

“There has been a lot of hard work over the years so it’s a real thrill to finally get through Z,” says UW-Madison researcher Joan Houston Hall, who took over as editor after the death of DARE founder Frederic Cassidy in 2000.

The DARE project is based on interviews conducted in more than 1,000 communities across the United States between 1965 and 1970 by 80 UW-Madison researchers. After this initial fieldwork, editors at UW-Madison spent the next four-plus decades studying the more than 2.3 million responses that were collected. This project also utilizes a vast collection of written materials -- including newspapers, books, diaries and letters -- that date from the colonial period to the present.

The dictionary now runs from Adam’s housecat (an expression, “he wouldn’t know me from Adam’s housecat”) to zydeco (a kind of dance music associated with Louisiana Creole culture).

Hall spoke with The Capital Times about the project and what’s next for those involved with DARE. For more information, visit or What follows is an edited transcript.

The Capital Times: How did this project come about?

Joan Houston Hall: It started out tangibly in 1963, when Fred Cassidy was appointed as chief editor of the project. But it had been in design since 1889, when the American Dialect Society was formed with the idea that it would do a survey of American dialects to be comparable to the survey of English dialects that was being published in the English Dialect Dictionary at that point.

But in the late 1940s, nothing was happening on the project and Cassidy, who was here at the UW, was getting a little impatient because he wanted to get started. So he did a pilot study here in Wisconsin called the Wisconsin English Language Survey in which he tested out a questionnaire and tweaked it. Then in 1962 he gave a paper to the American Dialect Society called -- “The ADS Dictionary -- how soon?” So he was finally given the go-ahead in 1963 and fieldwork started in 1965.

CT: Who was the target audience for this publication?

JHH: We assumed that the primary purchasers would be libraries and scholars and teachers and researchers. And certainly those have been major users of the dictionary. But we’ve been delighted to find that there are lots of others too.

CT: I’ve read stories of doctors and lawyers and law enforcement using DARE.

JHH: Yes. Think for instance what it would be like if you were a physician who grew up in Madison, went to UW, went to med school here and then got posted for your first job in southern Appalachia. Or northern Maine. Or western New Mexico. What do you do when a patient comes in and says, “Doc, I’ve got the ground itch” or “I’ve got dew poison” or “I’ve got sore kernels.” All of these wonderfully colorful and regional and sometimes archaic and folk terms for ailments and diseases are still out there and if you’ve never grown up with them you have no idea what your patient is saying. But if you have DARE, you could go look up these terms and find out what to ask next.

It even was used by a forensic linguist to analyze the writings of the Unabomber and he was able to characterize the writer very, very accurately, while the people at the FBI had a profile that was not close.

CT: How and when did you get involved with the project?

JHH: When I first heard about DARE I was a graduate student at Emory University in Atlanta. I was involved in a similar but much smaller survey called the Dialect Survey of Rural Georgia. So I was doing interviews in tiny communities in Georgia. We were interviewing people over 60, two blacks and two whites -- one of each being relatively well educated and one poorly educated. We were trying to determine whether race or education had a stronger effect on language. So when I heard about DARE I thought, “Oh, wow, I’d love to be part of that.” But I was in grad school. So in 1975, when I was finishing my dissertation my adviser noticed Fred Cassidy was looking for an editor. So I applied and was lucky enough to get the job.

CT: Cassidy saw the project through to the letter O before his death in 2000. Was there ever any concern that the project would come to a halt after he died?

JHH: No. It was clear that his plan for succession was that I would succeed him, if necessary. He always hoped to see the letter Z and he hoped to make it to 100, but unfortunately …

CT: How was this project funded?

JHH: We’ve really had an amazing collaboration among federal agencies, particularly the National Endowment for the Humanities and also the National Science Foundation. We’ve received dollars through private foundations, especially the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation but also the Franklin Philanthropic Foundation has been wonderful. Plus, hundreds of individuals have given to DARE just because they love language and they wanted to help us get to Z. And, of course, we’ve been housed at UW-Madison since the very beginning and have support from the Graduate School and the College of Letters and Science.

CT: Was funding ever an issue?

JHH: Oh, yes. The most difficult part is keeping it funded. There was a period in the late '90s when we had had to reduce staff due to lack of funding. It’s been soft money-funded the whole way and that means our staff are on year-to-year contracts. We have never been able to give more security than that.

CT: Now that you’ve made it through Z, what’s next for DARE?

JHH: Well, even when we first saw copies of the fifth volume in early January, we didn’t stop to celebrate because the end of January was our deadline for Volume 6, which is supplemental materials. That will probably be available in early 2013 and it’s going to be a wonderful tool for research, for teaching and for people who just love to browse in language. Then we have an online edition that’s scheduled to launch in September 2013. And once the digital edition is up and running we’ll regularly update the text because Volume 1 came out in 1985, and think of the magnificent online resources that have come out since then. So we’ll go back and improve on those early entries and add entries that we’ve missed.

CT: Are there fewer and fewer variations in American English today due to national media or the Internet or a more mobile society?

JHH: Many people like to say American English is being homogenized. I reject that notion. That’s not to say that there aren’t many, many changes and sometimes the little regionalisms do get pushed out by nationwide terms. But there still are thousands of words and phrases and pronunciations, and even bits of grammar and syntax, that are regional. Our regional vocabulary is not going to disappear.