MADISON, Wis. – 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-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.
Cassidy died in 2000, still looking toward publication of the final volume. His tombstone reads: “On to Z!”
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 their offices at UW-Madison’s English department, one 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 be to put the dictionary online. Hall envisions an online edition that will be updated constantly.
Hall said her all-time favorite word is bobbasheely, used in Gulf Coast states as a noun meaning a good friend or a verb to hang around with a friend. It comes from the language of the Choctaw tribes.
Two people interviewed in Texas and Alabama in the 1960s used the word. Further digging revealed that Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner had once used it in a novel, and it was used in the early 19th century by a colleague of former vice president and duelist Aaron Burr.
The dictionary has occasionally been put to serious use.
Forensic linguist Roger Shuy said he occasionally referred to the dictionary when he studied the Unabomber’s writings in the 1990s for clues to the writer’s identity. His profile didn’t help catch Ted Kaczynski, but it turned out to be pretty accurate: He guessed the Unabomber had a doctorate, grew up near Chicago and was older than some investigators initially believed.
Hall said she has uncovered flaws in a test routinely given to diagnose a brain abnormality in which people have difficulty coming up with words for everyday items. The test’s answer key does not allow regionalized answers; for instance, referring to a harmonica as a “mouth harp” is counted as a mistake. She hopes to help the authors rewrite the test to avoid misdiagnosis.
Hall also was sought for help by reporters who didn’t understand President Bill Clinton’s comment in 1993 that an Air Force official who had criticized him “doesn’t know me from Adam’s off ox.”
Hall said the phrase is used west of the Appalachians in place of the more popular “he doesn’t know me from Adam.” The “off ox” refers to one of the two oxen once used to plow fields.