Alphabet’s End

Reviewed by T. K. Pratt

Fifty years in the making, the Dictionary of American English has reached in volume V its last entry, zydeco (from Louisiana French, “now widely known[:] A kind of dance party; a style of dance music,” with twelve citations from 1949 to 2005). This is wonderful achievement for a wonderful book.

First, some disclosures: I have already reviewed the first four volumes for the Canadian Journal of Linguistics; my own Dictionary of Prince Edward Island English is among their sources; through the Dictionary Society of North America, I am a colleague of the principal editors; and I am a financial contributor.

DARE, with its splendid acronym, may not yet be as well known in Canada as it should be. It is a collection of words that are less than national in the United States, dialect words basically, but excluding terms strictly occupational. Defining and holding to the criteria for entry is always problematic for dialect dictionaries. But such is the wealth of evidence in DARE that the reader quickly learns to trust it, even when, for example, it includes the phrasal verb sleep in “remain in bed longer than normally.” By studying the accompanying map dotted with the locations of informants, one sees that there are no dots in Alabama, Georgia, and Missouri, only one in Florida and Louisiana, and few in New England. Hence the label: “widespread, but chiefly Inland Nth, N Midl, West.” One minor complaint is that only the first volume includes in its front matter the maps that lay out the editors’ thirty-seven overlapping regions, and only through these maps can one clearly see how, say, “West” is distinguished from Upper MW, SW, Desert SW, Pacific, and Pacific NW. Most entries do not have their own map to illustrate the regional labels that lie at the heart of this dictionary.

To sum up briefly DARE’s wealth of evidence, I quote from my review of volume III:

over 40,000 potential entries accumulated by the American Dialect Society since 1889; a painstakingly-designed 1847-item questionnaire for selected informants in 1002 American communities; from this fieldwork, 2,500,000 oral citations; more citations from 5,000 regional novels, diaries, reports, and newspapers; more again from several large personal collections, Linguistic Atlas material, previous dialect dictionaries, and thousands of volunteered items; and a total citation stock of something like 5,000,000— close to the number for the first Oxford English Dictionary. CJL 43 (1998): 245.

And now, for this volume came thousands upon thousands of electronic citations, the sifting of which delayed publication but added still more wealth and weight to the final product.

A flyer from the publisher asks “Who uses DARE?” and lists in answer many types of people, including novelists, linguists, librarians, crossword puzzlers, and even “a northern doctor transplanted south, trying to make sense of a patient’s complaint of ‘dew poison.’” To this list could be added anyone attempting to describe any aspect of Canadian English. Such a person simply cannot afford not to look at DARE for possible overlap and for much additional information. I have already estimated that, had it been available, it would have influenced one entry in four of my PEI dictionary and one in eight of the Dictionary of Newfoundland English. An example from the present volume is slumgullion, “a thick, makeshift stew,” which is in the Dictionary of Canadianisms, citing first a Jack London novel of 1902 and then two similar sources from 1919 and 1966. But is it a Canadianism at all when DARE enters it with a first citation from an Oregon newspaper of 1884, follows that with the same Jack London source, as well it might since London was American—and here a much fuller, more explanatory quotation—and then adds five other print and electronic sources and eleven answers to questions from the DARE fieldwork? The DC editor-in-chief, Walter Avis, speaks in his preface of having “constant recourse” to the Dictionary of Americanisms. There can be no doubt that the editors of DC’s second edition have to be equally constant with DARE. (Another minor complaint is that its editors do not always return the compliment. Surely readers deserve to know that their slash “to clear land of trees” is not wholly a regional Americanism: it is also in DC with an earlier citation.)

All in all, DARE is more than worthy the many celebrations that have attended this volume, and admirers anticipate volume VI for much valuable background information, and, after that, this dictionary’s triumphant entry into the digital universe.

This review “Alphabet’s End” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 214 (Autumn 2012): 160-62.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.