It was with a profound sense of personal validation that I opened Volume V of the Dictionary of American Regional English to discover an entry for the term my family back in Kentucky used for the chamber pot: thunder mug.
There are also entries for thunder jar and thunder jug, little maps showing regional distribution. And I was also happy to see that what we called a sweat bee is also known as the hayfield wasp, the ice-cream bee, and other terms.
For scholars of American English, this volume and the series it completes are a hoard of riches, and also a work of heroic proportions for more than four decades. Joan Houston Hall of the University of Wisconsin, who has been associated with the project since 1975 and has served as chief editor since 2000, gets pride of place on the dust jacket, but the list of staff members, students and volunteers since 1965 runs to more than 500 names. There look to be about 5,000 listed contributors. And a healthy crowd of financial contributors as well.
They deserve a huzzah.
For the non-specialist reader, probably in a library, since I expect not many will hand over $85 to Harvard University Press for this handsome volume, browsing is an endless delight. In addition to thunder mug, one comes across stratty, describing unkempt hair; wheelhorse, the person who does the hard work in some operation; stink cheese, cottage cheese that has been allowed to ripen; the Minnesota-Wisconsin uff-da to express surprise, disgust, aversion, pain; turd floater, a heavy rain.
The student of botany will discover a wealth of names for native plants, and the terms for insects, fish, and animals are similarly varied.
What strikes one repeatedly is the variety, the creativity, and the colorfulness of the American English. This final volume alone has more than 1,200 double-column pages, and every one I have looked at so far has some fresh piece of information (sushi has been known in American English since 1894) or evocative term (swing-dingle, a shoulder yoke for carrying two buckets).
This volume, this project is more than a mere reference for looking up obscure terms. It is a repository of who we have been as a people, and who we are.