The swivet pays off

Dic­tionaryof amer­i­can­di­alect

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - INSIGHT - By ALI­SON FLOOD

com­pleted af­ter 50 years.

FROM whoopensocker to up­scud­dle, strub­bly to swivet, 50 years af­ter it was first con­ceived the Dic­tionary of Amer­i­can Re­gional English is fi­nally about to reach the end of the al­pha­bet.

The fifth vol­ume of the dic­tionary, cov­er­ing “slab” to “zy­deco”, is out next month from Har­vard Univer­sity Press. It com­pletes a project be­gun in 1962 at the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin-madi­son, when Fred Cas­sidy was ap­pointed chief ed­i­tor of a dic­tionary of Amer­i­can di­alects.

Cas­sidy spent sev­eral years craft­ing a 1,600-ques­tion sur­vey cov­er­ing all as­pects of daily life, and in 1965, 80 field­work­ers set out in “word wag­ons” to 1,002 com­mu­ni­ties across the US, in­ter­view­ing 2,777 peo­ple over six years.

This in­for­ma­tion has been mapped by ed­i­tors over the last 40 years with writ­ten ma­teri- als dat­ing from the colo­nial pe­riod to the present, cre­at­ing a 60,000-en­try dic­tionary that its chief ed­i­tor says gives the lie to the pop­u­lar myth that Amer­i­can English has be­come ho­mogenised by the me­dia and the mo­bil­ity of Amer­ica’s pop­u­la­tion.

“There is still a tremen­dous amount of re­gional vari­a­tion,” said Joan Hous­ton Hall. “Yes, of course the lan­guage has changed: it’s the na­ture of lan­guage to change. But it doesn’t change in the same ways or at the same pace across the coun­try. And although some lo­cal words get pushed out by na­tion­wide com- mer­cial terms, new ones come into the lan­guage. They are the kinds of words we use with fam­ily and friends rather than those we learn at school, and of­ten we’re not aware that other peo­ple aren’t fa­mil­iar with them.”

Some of Hall’s favourite terms from the fifth vol­ume, which runs to over 1,200 pages, in­clude whoopensocker (some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary of its kind, es­pe­cially a large or strong drink, chiefly used in Wis­con­sin), willy­wags (a New Eng­land term for an area with tan­gled un­der­brush), up­scud­dle (south­ern Ap­palachian term for a noisy quar­rel), strub­bly (Penn­syl­va­nia Ger­man term for un­tidy) and swivet (a term for a state of anx­i­ety from the South). A slough pumper is the Min­nesota term for a bit­tern, be­cause it lives in sloughs or marshes and makes a noise like an old wooden pump, a tolo is the Washington State word for a dance to which women in­vite men, and to “tump over” is to knock some­thing over in the South.

The dic­tionary shows how dif­fer­ent regions of the US re­fer to the same item in var­i­ous ways: fluff un­der the bed is de­scribed as dust kit­ties in the North­east, dust bun­nies in the Mid­west, house moss in the South and woolies in Penn­syl­va­nia, while a sand­wich will be a po’boy in Louisiana, but a hoagie, sub, grinder, hero or tor­pedo else­where. A de­scrip­tion of a re­mote place, mean­while, can range from the boon­docks to the pucker­brush, the tules, or to Hall’s favourite, the willy­wags.

“A friend told me this week­end that when he starts brows­ing the pages of DARE, he gets se­duced by the next en­try, and the next, and pretty soon he looks up to dis­cover that an hour has gone by. I find the same thing, and I’ve read all this many times over,” said Hall.

A dig­i­tal edi­tion of the dic­tionary will launch next year, al­low­ing the team to up­date the text on a reg­u­lar ba­sis and add new en­tries. – © Guardian News & Me­dia 2012

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