Frederic Cassidy isn’t exactly a man of few words. It’s not that he’s a chin-wag (an excessive talker, as the New Mexicans put it), nor is he a clatterbox (a Georgia term for someone who vocalizes too much or too loudly). It’s just that the 78-year-old professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin is enamored of speech patterns, particularly folksy regional expressions like the ones above. In fact, he likes to refer to himself as a “lexicolater,” or word worshiper.
Cassidy made up that term, he admits blithely, but so what? Americans have been coining words and phrases since pre-Revolutionary times, and many of these colorful constructions have become part of the regional vernacular. For the past 23 years Cassidy has been collecting these original ways of saying things, and the result is the nation’s first Dictionary of American Regional English or DARE (Belknap/Harvard University Press, $60).
Cassidy has gathered roughly two-and-a-half million words and folk expressions. At a doorstopping 903 pages, Volume I of DARE begins with “aa” (a kind of lava in Hawaii) and ends with “czezski” (an old Chicago word for a Czech or Bohemian). The rest of the alphabet will be dealt with in subsequent installments of this projected five-part series. “We’re chronicling the language ordinary people use among themselves,” says Cassidy, whom South Carolinians might call actable (lively).
DARE is no whipsey doodle effort (that’s North Dakota talk for a once over). With government and foundation grant money, Cassidy hired a team of 80 field-workers between 1965 and 1970 and sent them around the country in vans called “word wagons.” They visited 1,002 communities and interviewed 2,777 people, who filled out a 1,847-question booklet covering such topics as weather, food, clothing, shelter, forms of transportation and parts of the body. Asked, for example, what they called the vehicle that takes people to the crossbar hotel (jail), respondents in Kentucky said “black Annie,” those in New York and Ohio answered “cherry top,” and Northeasterners came back with “pie wagon.” “If you want to know how people feel and think, look at their language,” says Cassidy, who cautions that “this is not like all those how-to-talk-Yankee books.”
Now that DARE is amply filling bookshelves, all those aginners (a Michigan and Pennsylvania term for opposing parties) who once harrumphed that Cassidy had beans up his nose (a Wisconsin expression referring to someone who does something stupid) are humbled. Crossword lovers are already claiming that the tome will revolutionize their game, academicians are praising it as a milestone in linguistic scholarship, and plain old word lovers are dipping in happily for an afternoon’s read. They learn that New Engenders think of blackjack as a hard candy made with molasses, while, to Illinoisans, it’s moonshine liquor. Then there’s the word Chicago, which is a bowling game in northwest Arkansas and a jelly-filled pastry in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana and South Dakota.
The proud collector of all these picturesque expressions became interested in language during his bilingual childhood on the island of Jamaica. Cassidy’s father worked as an auto dealer there, and the four kids grew up speaking both Creole and English. The family moved to Akron, Ohio when Cassidy was 11. He attended Oberlin College in Ohio and earned a doctorate in English language and literature at the University of Michigan.
Cassidy joined the English department at the University of Wisconsin in 1939. In the ’60s he took time out to compile a Dictionary of Jamaican English. Aware that the American Dialect Society had long intended to compile a dictionary of regional English, he urged them to get on with the project and drew up a plan. In 1962 they appointed Cassidy editor. Since then, he has been “up to his eyebrows” in the project, from which he will receive royalties. Though officially retired, he maintains an office at the University of Wisconsin and—without salary—oversees a dictionary team of 17.
In the evenings Cassidy bids farewell to his staff—and a needlepoint in his office that reads “A good pun deserves to be drawn and quoted”—and goes to his lakeside home outside Madison. Since the death of his wife, Hélène, a French professor, in 1980, Cassidy has lived alone, though his four children and seven grandchildren, he notes, “keep good family touch,” as they say just about everywhere.
Cassidy and his team are already busy working on Volume II, which will go from D through J. Projected publication date is 1988, with the final volume not expected until close to 2000. Though Cassidy has trained a successor, he takes pride in what he has achieved so far on a humanitarian as well as on a linguistic level. “Anything that broadens you and makes you aware of the tremendous variety of people is a way of overcoming stereotypes,” says a man who is to be congratulated for tackling a difficult task—or as they say in Missouri—having cut a fat pig in the hip.