If you don’t know a stone toter from Adam’s off ox, or aren’t sure what a grinder shop sells, the Dictionary of American Regional English is for you.
The collection of regional words and phrases is beloved by linguists and authors and used as a reference in professions as diverse as acting and police work. And now, after five decades of wide-ranging research that sometimes got word-gatherers run out of suspicious small towns, the job is almost finished.
The dictionary team at the University of Wisconsin at Madison is nearing completion of the final volume, covering “S” to “Z.” A new federal grant will help the volume get published next year, joining the first four volumes already in print.
“It will be a huge milestone,” said editor Joan Houston Hall.
The dictionary chronicles words and phrases used in distinct regions. Maps show where a submarine sandwich might be called a hero or grinder, or where a potluck - as in a potluck dinner or supper - might be called a pitch-in (Indiana) or a scramble (northern Illinois).
It’s how Americans do talk, not how they should talk.
“It’s one of the great American scholarly activities, and people will be reading it for a century learning about the roots of the American language,” said William Safire, who frequently cites the dictionary in his “On Language” column in the New York Times Magazine. “It shows the richness and diversity of our language.”
Doctors have used it to communicate with patients, and investigators have referred to it in efforts to identify criminals, including the Unabomber. Dialect coaches in Hollywood and on Broadway have used the dictionary’s audio recordings of regional speakers to train actors.
Author Tom Wolfe has called the dictionary “my favorite reading.”
In awarding the two-year, $295,000 grant that will get the final volume into print, National Science Foundation reviewers called the dictionary “one of the most visible public faces of linguistics,” and a “national treasure.”
The concept dates to 1889, when the American Dialect Society was formed. But the project did not start in earnest until 1965, when English professor Frederic Cassidy dispatched workers to 1,000 carefully chosen U.S. communities to interview residents and make audio recordings of their speech.
Workers often slept in “word wagons” - vans emblazoned with the UW logo - and even were chased out of a few Southern towns. The field work alone took five years and collected 2.5 million different words and phrases.
Since then, linguists have painstakingly researched the words, using print materials to decide which should be included. The dictionary project has about a dozen workers and a $750,000 annual budget.
Mr. Cassidy died in 2000, still looking toward publication of the final volume. His tombstone reads: “On to Z!”
Ms. Hall, who has worked at the dictionary since 1975 and been editor since 2000, said the complete series of five volumes published by Harvard University Press will contain about 75,000 entries.
Draft entries for the final volume are still being reviewed. During a recent visit to the offices at UW-Madison’s English department, one worker was tracing the history of the word “stone toter,” a type of fish found in parts of the eastern U.S.
After the final volume is published, the next phase of the project will involve putting the dictionary online. Ms. Hall envisions an online edition that will be updated constantly.