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From Aa to Zydeco, It’s in DARE

It’s a long distance from A to Z: 26 letters, and in the case of the Dictionary of American Regional English, 26 years plus a few months between publication of Volume I (A-C, 1985) and Volume V (Sl-Z, 2012).

But at last the time for celebration is at hand. Volume V is in production now at Harvard University Press and will be published in March. You can read all about it here.

It’s a daunting, indeed a daring accomplishment, as the editors quite deliberately implied when they chose a title with the acronym DARE.

What is DARE? It’s a dictionary, but a dictionary like no other: five hefty 8½-x-11 volumes of about a thousand pages each, recording the regional and folk vocabulary of the United States, vocabulary mostly overlooked by standard dictionaries.

“Regional” encompasses areas as large as North, South, and West; every state; and as small as Boston, Baltimore, and Nantucket. (The index available on the DARE Web site shows six words peculiar to Nantucket, including coof, “a person not a native of Nantucket.”)

There are well-known words and obscure words about life in the country and in the city, words about games and emotions. Back in the 1960s, field workers in “word wagons” drove to 1,002 communities throughout the country and recorded local speakers’ responses to 1,847 questions in 41 categories, including weather, houses, furniture, foods, flowers, tools, honesty, family, health, religion, children’s games, relationships among people, exclamations—there isn’t room here to list them all.

Nor is there quite room enough here to list the words themselves, some 50,000 of them. But the first and the last can give an inkling of what’s in between.

DARE begins with the letter A, and the very word a is the first entry. We use it all the time, but DARE shows that it varies enough from place to place that it requires one and a half pages to explain. It’s not just the indefinite article, sometimes used instead of an before words beginning with a vowel, but also (chiefly Southern) used instead of on in a-purpose. All told, a requires three major entries and four cross-references to other entries.

The next entry is aa, familiar to Scrabble players as a Hawaiian word for rough lava, opposite of pahoehoe. It takes 111 pages in all just to cover the words beginning with A.

Nearly 5,000 pages later, the last page of the last volume records a term from the old West: zulu car, a railroad car carrying emigrants and their belongings, “Westward bound with a car full of household goods.”

And the dictionary ends with a party: zydeco, “originally from southern Louisiana and eastern Texas, now widely known.” It’s “a kind of dance party; a style of dance music usually featuring accordion, fiddle or banjo, and washboard, associated with Louisiana Creole culture.” As with all other entries, DARE provides illustrative dated quotations. The earliest comes from a song recorded in 1949: “If you want to have fun, now, you got to go,/ Way out in the country to the Zydeco.”

And you don’t have to go way out in the country to have fun with DARE. You can sample 100 entries, including Christmas gift (something to say), hopping john (something to eat), and rantum scoot (something to do), on the DARE Web site.

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