After half a century, dictionary of regional English nearly done  
Associated Press
March  23, 2009

back

Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/allheadlines/285531

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).

A "stone toter" is a type of fish found in parts of the eastern U.S.; "Adam's off ox" is used west of the Appalachians in place of the more popular "he doesn't know me from Adam."

"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. Dialect coaches in Hollywood and on Broadway have used the dictionary's audio recordings of regional speakers to train actors.

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.