Fearful Symmetries

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11 October, 2007

The Wisconsin Book Festival: Would You Sign My Dictionary?

Brats on the terrace.

Did you think I was referring to badly behaved children? Or a party featuring bratwurst? Thus was the topic of the Wisconsin Book Festival session The Dulcinea and I attended last night called "The Dictionary of American Regional English Toasts Fred Cassidy: On to Z!". Long-time readers may recall the DARE folks giving a presentation on the Wisconsin dialect last year that I also attended. Last night's event was a celebration of the centennial of the birth of Frederic G. Cassidy, the founding editor of the DARE. While waiting in the lobby for The D to arrive, I looked at some photos and ran into a few folks who knew Cassidy including the gentleman who now occupies his office. It wasn't long before my love walked in and we made our way to the auditorium.

The panel included Joan Houston Hall, the chief editor of DARE; August Rubrecht, one of the fieldworkers who collected countless regional terms from 1967-68 for DARE; finally there was Simon Winchester who I know as the author of The Professor and the Madman, about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. I didn't even notice he was on the bill so I didn't bring my copy of the book to be autographed. Robert Easton, an actor and master of dialects, was supposed to be there as well but was unable to make it, unfortunately.

The evening began with Ms. Hall giving an overview of DARE and paying tribute to Fred Cassidy. Cassidy was born in Jamaica to a Canadian father and a Jamaican mother so he was brought up in a multi-lingual household. I believe that he moved to the U.S. at the age of 11. According to this tribute, he was a man of many interests: "His scholarly work embraced many subjects, including Anglo-Saxon, English composition, Jamaican English, the place names of Dane County, fieldwork for the Linguistic Atlas, and of course preeminently the Dictionary of American Regional English."

Cassidy began the research on the dictionary in 1965 when he sent the first wave of grad students out to collect words. I recommend following the link above as Hall's presentation was similar as to that she gave last spring. She gave examples of how the DARE is used and included the tale of how a kidnapper was caught with the help of the dictionary. The note used a term, which I cannot recall, was used only in the area around Cleveland, Akron, and Youngstown. Ms. Hall also related how she was contacted by a psychiatrist from Chicago who asked her to define certain words. A patient had apparently failed a standard test used to diagnose a particular illness which asks people to identify items that are pictured. Well, the only acceptable answers were words commonly used in Boston, where the test originated. And so, when the patient identified what we'd call a mask as a "false-face", he or she got a big red mark. Ms. Hall was in contact with the test masters and trying to expand the answer key to include regional terms.

Mr. Rubrecht spoke next and regaled us with stories of his time collecting words as a grad student in the late 1960s. Cassidy has identified 1,000 towns and cities for collectors to go and people like Rubrecht jumped in "Word Wagons" and hit the road. Word Wagons were old Dodge vans with the UW logo painted on the sides. Rubrecht would swing into a town and set up in a nearby campground. He'd inform the local police of his presence and his mission before heading out to look for folks to interview and fill out the 1,600 item questionnaire. Cassidy had the collectors seek out mostly older individuals who were originally from the area and, preferably, whose parents were also natives. Middle aged and younger folks were also approached but the older folks were able to recall terms dating back further, perhaps to times before the world wars, before mass communication, and the like. Much of his mission involved social engineering. Many people were suspicious of him, thinking he was there to rouse the rabble with notion of civil rights or of ending the Vietnam War. Rubrecht recalled many humorous tales including having to convince the police department of a small town in New York that he wasn't a predator.

Simon Winchester was last. An Englishman, he was a journalist for The Guardian of London for 20 years before turning to book writing for a living. Mr. Winchester had many stories about his acclimation to American English which were quite funny. Apparently "knock up" in British English means to pay someone a visit and so, when he told a woman that he'd knock her up later that evening, it caused more than a bit of confusion. There was also the tale of how he was in the South and speaking to an older gentleman. The man asked how long Winchester had been in America. After replying that he'd been here for two years, the old duff said, "You picked up our language pretty quick." He also talked about how he got the idea for The Professor and the Madman as well as having to get to New York for an interview while he was sledding across the Arctic.

A Q&A period followed. I can recall only a couple of the questions. One was about how the DARE folks keep the dictionary current. Researchers aren't sent into the field any longer but databases and archives of periodicals are constantly perused and they also follow-up on suggestions that people send to them. It was also revealed that an electronic copy is forthcoming. Someone else asked about their ability to trace the movement of words from one region to another. Ms. Hall gave an example involving a word (I think it was "scrid") used almost exclusively in the Northeast. She described an Internet search which revealed its use by someone in California. Contacting the gentleman, she found that he'd gotten it from a girlfriend originally from Maine. I personally am hoping that "hoolie" catches on. I spell it with the –ie to differentiate it from "hooley", meaning a party. We'll see.

Sitting there, I was wondering if there were any documentaries about linguistics. There was a show about the history of English hosted by Robert McNeil which aired on PBS in the 1980s and a more recent one from the UK. Unfortunately, that's all I could think of. When I got frustrated, I started thinking about "..ish", a Doctor Who audio drama which finds the 6th Doctor at a linguistics convention. Anyone know of instances of linguistics in popular culture?

The event was videotaped so perhaps it will appear on Wisconsin Eye. And, for a finale, here's me with Mr. Winchester, an extraordinarily nice gentleman.

Does that Hieronymus Bosch t-shirt make me look fat?
|| Palmer, 6:46 PM


DARE is quite the unfortunate acronym. Are those Lennon glasses you were wearing?
Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:59 PM  
The kidnapper napping term was "devil's strip" (for the bit of grass between sidewalk and street), and the roving word was "scrit".

What a fun night. Seriously, dictionaries and etymology are TOTALLY cool. Also field work (the collection of data from individuals/groups) is pretty awesome. I should get back into that.

Obviously the anti-drug group didn't know they were stealing that acronym from something way better. But the damage is done.

I loved Winchester's shirt and matching kerchief in his pocket. He was a natty man and a fantastic speaker.
Blogger The Dulcinea, at 4:12 AM  
Yeah, the dictionary people got the acronym first. Hopefully people can look beyond it and to the cool lexicography behind it.

I guess they're John Lennon glasses. The lenses are round and tinted.

Winchester was a hoopy frood. I'd love to chat him up for a bit at a tavern. I bet he's got some great stories to tell.
Blogger Palmer, at 8:10 AM  
don't know why the hell I brought up the glasses, since you were wearing them that one time we met.

Disregard. I'll return to living the FFRF dream vicariously through your blog.
Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:57 PM  
OK, I'll let it go. This time...

Blogger Palmer, at 9:19 AM  

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