I was not around for the conception of the Dictionary of American Regional English and was only generally aware of its long gestation. And though I was not present for the accouchement, I did get to attend the christening yesterday.
The National Endowment for the Humanities threw a reception at the Old Post Office Building in Washington* for the publication of the fifth and concluding volume of the dictionary.** Joan Houston Hall, the chief editor, and Ben Zimmer, the linguist, spoke about the heroic accomplishment, and family members of the late Frederic Cassidy, the original editor, were present to share in the triumph.
A triumph it is, the work of more than half a century, hudreds of scholars, thousands of contributors, survey responses and printed citations in the millions.
But wait, there's more! A sixth volume, with extensive maps and indices, is forthcoming, and, like the Oxford English Dictionary, it will be made available online, with periodic updates. Its audio files will be available to measure shifts in pronunciation.
While the gaudier locutions catch the public eye, Mr. Zimmer pointed out that many of the little things, such as prepositions, will be of immense interest to lexicographers. And there are practical applications as well. Frank Mankiewicz, a longtime supporter of the project, was on hand to tell how DARE once saved a Western university from congressional wrath. A committee investigating its expenditure of government funds several hundred dollars spent on an "Italian fruitwood commode," Chairman Dingell knew only of the predominately Eastern meaning, "toilet." Consulting DARE indicated that there are regions where it principally means a low chest or end table.
Professor Hall, in fact, explained that DARE's understanding of the meaning of devil strip, the patch of grass between the sidewalk and the street, in a ransom note helped to identify a kidnapper. That patch or territory, whether known as the tree lawn, the terrace, or any of a multitude of terms, turns out to be one of the great regional markers in American English.
Both Mr. Zimmer and Professor Hall suggested that fears of the mass media's erasing regional accents and language are overblown. People don't interact with television, Professor Hall said; they speak like their parents and the people they associate with. And the years of research, continuing into the present, show that regional terms have a stubborn staying power. There are, of course, changes. What was once the upper-class, non-rhotic East Coast accent, most notably identified with Franklin Roosevelt, is fading, and there are indications of a notable vowel shift around the country, all of which will be lovingly documented.
The late William Safire championed DARE for preserving the richness and colorfulness of the American language. He was quite right. Huzzahs are in order.
*Destined to become a Trump hotel, O tempora, O mores.
**If you're flush, Harvard University Press is ofering all five volumes at a discount, but only this month.