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By Mark Johnson, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (TNS)

The end may be near the half-century-old Dictionary of American Regional English. In a few months, the budget pool will drain to a puddle. Layoff notices have been sent and eulogies composed.

“It’s a damned shame. It’s a shame that this country can no longer support scholarly work of this magnitude,” said Grant Barrett, co-host and co-producer of the public radio show “A Way With Words.” “It’s one of the great reference works.”

The dictionary, often referred to by its acronym DARE, compiles words from 1,002 communities across the country, drawn from newspapers, novels, maps, menus, diaries, obituaries and, most of all, from long interviews with people willing to plow through a survey of more than 1,800 questions. Planned in 1963 by its first editor, Frederic Gomes Cassidy, the project stretched far beyond its first deadline of 1976. Cassidy died in 2000 at the age of 92.

DARE, based at the University of Wisconsin, finally reached the final volume including “Z” in 2012. A digital version was published in December 2013, by which time editors already had begun working to update the early volumes.

The dictionary captures a language as diverse and sweeping as the country itself, from the beauty of its 79 regional terms for dragonfly to the ugly history contained in 13 pages of entries on the word nigger. Inside DARE’s covers is America’s story, the waves of immigration represented in words that have settled into our language: the Irish who brought us brogan, a heavy work shoe; the Italians who brought vino, a term for wine; the Germans who gave us hausfrau for housewife; the Polish who brought over paczki, a filled doughnut.

Discovering such words and preserving them may seem a whimsical pursuit, but it has practical applications.

A couple of months ago, Douglas Kelling, a 68-year-old internist in Concord, N.C., was examining an 80-year-old woman when the patient turned to him and said: “Doc, how’s my ticklebox?” The baffled doctor asked what she meant by “ticklebox.” “Well, my heart, course,” the woman answered, resolving this particular moment of confusion.

In almost 40 years of practice, the doctor has heard patients use the terms “Smiling Mighty Jesus,” for spinal meningitis, “fireballs of the uterus” for fibroids of the uterus and “old-timer’s disease” for Alzheimer’s disease.

“And that’s just a small sample of the phrases I’ve run into,” Kelling said.

Such moments have convinced Kelling of the value of DARE, which he learned of through a recent article in the magazine Harvard Medicine.

Roger Shuy, a retired linguist in Montana, has used DARE to help law enforcement by profiling criminals in hundreds of cases through the words they use in ransom notes and recorded conversations. Movie actors have relied on the dictionary to help them capture authentic regional speech. Researchers even used the dictionary to expose errors in the Boston Naming Test, one of the most common tools for assessing brain-damaged patients.

For years, DARE has weathered seemingly endless financial crises, somehow always finding eleventh-hour benefactors. This time, though, the project will begin the fiscal year in July with a little under $100,000 — not even 20 percent of its usual annual budget. And the university has troubles of its own: a proposed two-year $300 million budget cut from the governor.

John Karl Scholz, dean of the university’s College of Letters and Science, declined to comment on the dictionary’s predicament. Chief editor Joan Houston Hall, who has devoted almost 40 years to the project, recently sent layoff and nonrenewal notices to all four DARE staff members. Barring a financial rescue, she also will lose her full-time job.

“I’ve lost many nights of sleep trying to figure out where we’re going to get funding, and in recent months I just haven’t thought of any place left to go. I recognize that the university is stretched to the limit,” she said.

“I believe in this project. It has been an important gift to the nation and there is still work to be done.”

If she is unable to find more funding, Hall said she may stay on at 20 percent of her salary and spend the next year, “trying to figure out what goes in the archives and what goes elsewhere.”

The sense of doom isn’t palpable at the dictionary’s offices on the sixth floor of Helen C. White Hall at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where research continues and words are as alive as ever.

Hall scans the digital version of DARE, looking up the word bittern, a marsh bird, and marveling at more than 50 regional alternatives, including belcher-squelcher, dunkadoo, conk-onk, fly-up-the-creek, and wollerkertoot.

Such diversity appears to fly in the face of the long-held belief that regional differences are fading, bringing our language ever closer to a McDonald’s-in-every-town, one-size fits all form.

“Every time you crack open a copy of DARE, that myth is shattered,” said Barrett, whose radio show reaches hundreds of thousands of listeners in 31 states. “You find history and culture. You find a continuous connection to the past. DARE has information about all of the other languages that have contributed to English.

“It’s a giant mirror that shows us who we are and where we’ve been.”

The picture defies simple explanations, showing that words continue to migrate across the country. Hall has discovered that in the 50 years since the dictionary’s first survey, Wisconsin residents have begun to change what they call a fizzy drink.

“Fifty years ago it was almost totally pop,” Hall said, pointing to a map of the state. “Now soda is coming from the eastern United States and it’s pushing out pop.”

In the office next door, general and science editor Roland Berns, who has worked for DARE for 25 years, is working on the entry for candlefish, a fish so oily that when dry it can be set ablaze like a torch, a fish whose presence on the Pacific Coast was noted by the explorers Lewis and Clark.

Across the hall works the man Berns praises “as the guy who finally solved the mystery of scrod.”

For years, fishermen and word experts could not agree on what fish scrod described.
Associate editor George Goebel traced the word back to the middle of the Nineteenth Century and discovered it was not a term for a species of fish back then, but rather for the process of lightly salting and grilling a fish.

On a recent morning Goebel was updating the entry for beau dollar, an old term for a silver dollar. The word dates back to France in the 1800s. It was used in Southern states, appeared in a blues song in 1941 and was heard regularly in a Milwaukee coin store in the early 1980s.

Goebel also has been working to modernize the dictionary’s storage and editing systems. Many of the entries are still kept on the original paper slips collected in the 1960s by DARE field workers as they crisscrossed the country in “word wagons,” interviewing sources. From paper slips, Goebel has been creating databases.

“It’s all an investment in the future,” he said. “If there is one. We have to go as if there is.”

Photo: greeblie via Flickr

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