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UW's Dictionary of American Regional English documents a changing America
One language, many varieties
The work relies on thousands of field interviews.
The work relies on thousands of field interviews.

After 50 years, the Dictionary of American Regional English is finally complete. The University of Wisconsin-Madison project has been called "one of the glories of contemporary American scholarship" by The New York Times.

The dictionary collects more than 60,000 little-known regionalisms. It is the only reference work of its kind. The first of its five volumes was published in 1985, and its last in March, by Harvard University Press.

"It's important for a lot of reasons," says chief editor Joan Houston Hall. "One of the original reasons was that, in the mid 20th century, our society had changed so much over the recent 50 years." Regional dialects were rapidly being lost as radio, television and movies standardized usage and vocabulary.

Houston Hall discusses DARE's beginning, growth and future at a UW-Madison continuing studies lecture from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 12, at the Pyle Center, 702 Langdon St. The cost is $20.

The Dictionary of American Regional English relies on 2,777 field interviews conducted in 1,002 communities between 1965 and 1970, besides research into historical published material.

DARE is used by librarians, historians, writers, by physicians trying to match illnesses with colloquially described symptoms, and even by law enforcement.

"A favorite example is one in which a child abductor put a ransom note on the doorstep of the parents, and told them to put the money in a diaper bag on the double strip," says Houston Hall. "Well, where can you find out about double strip?"

Only in DARE. It's one of a dozen of names for the grass between sidewalk and street. The term is used only in one part of Ohio.

"We were delighted to be able to assist in a case like that," says Houston Hall.

DARE will be continually updated in a digital edition, set to be released in September, 2013. A smaller, popular edition is being considered.

As for Houston Hall's favorite regionalism, she won't say.

"I think it's a great word," she says. "But I have said it enough times, and enough people have said, 'Wow that's a cool word,' that if you Google it now, you'll find that people are using it.

"My dismay about that is that I don't want it to lose its unique regionality. I'd rather it stay in its part of the country, and be a part of their history and culture."

To register for Houston Hall's talk, visit

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