Please begin today by asking yourself a question:
What county do I live in?
I trust I am right in assuming that many readers - even most! - answered that question correctly, and that many of you said, "Dane County."
Now ask yourself a second question:
Why is it called Dane County?
My guess is that more readers than not don't know.
It's something I've been thinking about since a mention of Fred Cassidy in a column last week brought a note from Isthmus journalist David Medaris, asking if I realized the University of Wisconsin Press had recently reissued a book by Cassidy titled "Dane County Place-Names."
Not only did I not realize that, I didn't even realize Cassidy had ever written the book in the first place, a book he begins by asking readers if they know why Dane County is Dane County.
"Some people seem to think it refers to Scandinavian settlers," Cassidy wrote, "but they are wrong."
Like most people, I knew Cassidy, who died in 2000 at 92, as the engine driving the ambitious and acclaimed Dictionary of American Regional English, or DARE, which is based in the English Department at UW-Madison.
DARE - an exhaustive, multi-volume collection of regional words and phrases - was a 19th century concept of the American Dialect Society. But it remained only a concept until Cassidy, who came to UW-Madison in 1939, got a grant from the Office of Education in the 1960s and dispatched field workers, mostly graduate students, around the country. The interviews they conducted became the seeds for DARE, which language pundit William Safire once called "the most exciting linguistic project going on in the United States."
I spent a morning with Cassidy in the DARE offices less than a year before he died. It remains one of my favorite days in more than three decades of journalism.
He had joined his staff for a coffee break on the sixth floor of Helen C. White Hall. They were telling stories about life in the field for DARE and someone mentioned a field worker who happened into some sort of labor strike in Kentucky and had a bullet fired over her head.
Eventually Cassidy shuffled back to his own office, which overlooked Science Hall. He was 91 and still came into that office every day. He stayed sharp and could tell you that in Two Rivers a large bullfrog is called a "bizmaroon" and in the next breath say DARE had always had funding concerns.
"Know any millionaires?" Cassidy asked with a grin. The goal, always, was to complete the dictionary. His motto in life was "On to Z." Today it's on his tombstone. (The current DARE editor, Joan Houston Hall, said Wednesday the fifth and final volume - encompassing letters S to Z - is planned for 2011 publication. Fundraising is ongoing.)
What a delight to learn that before he was canvassing the country for DARE, Cassidy trained his sights closer to home, on Dane County.
"Dane County Place-Names" was first published in 1947, eight years after he arrived. UW Press reprinted it in 1968, but as David Medaris notes in his insightful foreword to the new edition, copies became scarce almost immediately.
This third printing assures curious residents who want to learn how a county village with a lovely but odd name received it will be able to do so.
Paoli, it turns out, was named for a village in Pennsylvania by Peter Matts, who was born in that state and laid out the village in Dane County in 1849. Lake Kegonsa is for the Ojibwa word meaning "little fish," and was chosen by Lyman Draper of the Wisconsin Historical Society in 1854.
There are hundreds more, including, of course, the origin of the county name itself.
It turns out Dane County is named for Nathan Dane, of Massachusetts, who helped formulate the Northwest Ordinance, which paved the way for Wisconsin to eventually become a state.
Now all that's left may be naming something around here for Fred Cassidy.