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From Aaron’s Rod to Zydeco
Kim Schmidt
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The desire to capture the variety in American speech is what inspired a project known as the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE).
illustration by Arthur E. Giron
Hero, hoagie or submarine sandwich? For 50 years, the people behind the Dictionary of American Regional English have sought to illuminate the different ways we speak the same language.

Knowing that something completely foreign awaits at the end of a flight — even one that doesn’t leave the country — is one of the greatest pleasures of travel; you leave with a scarf around your neck and come home with sand in your shoes.

But of course, more than just the temperature can change when you deplane. In addition to fashions, cuisine and social mores, the way we speak differs vastly­ from region to region. Ever ordered a Coke in the South and been asked what kind? Or been invited to a carry-in in Illinois, only to show up empty­handed to a potluck dinner?

The desire to capture such rich variety in American speech is what inspired ­Frederic Cassidy, an English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who had experience as a linguistic geographer and a lexicographer, and his team of researchers to embark on an ambitious project known as the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE). The project has spanned 50 years and amassed more than 63,000 entries, which have been released in five alphabetically­ categorized volumes. The final volume, which starts with slab (what people in Illinois, Indiana and Missouri call a road paved with concrete) and ends with zydeco (a term for a type of dance music associated with Creole culture that originated in Louisiana), was published earlier this year. And though Cassidy didn’t live to see the project to completion — he died in 2000, his rallying cry of “On to Z!” engraved on his tombstone — the work continues, with plans to publish a sixth volume of supplemental materials and put the entire project online next year.

While it’s tempting to think that the Internet or national television and radio programming would have homogenized American English since ­Cassidy’s work first began, DARE’s chief editor, Joan Houston Hall, says new ­regional words appear all the time — you simply have to know where to find them.
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