Joan Houston Hall
Joan Houston Hall has been chief editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English since 2000, when she succeeded the ambitious project's late founding editor, Frederic G. Cassidy. A former resident of California, Georgia, Idaho, Maine, Ohio and Oregon, Hall joined the DARE staff in 1975 -- a full decade before publication of its first volume -- and had risen to associate editor by the time Vol. III was published in 1996.
Since the 2002 publication of Vol. IV, Hall and DARE's visionary staff have taken up Cassidy's rallying cry, "On to Z," and are shepherding Vol. V (covering Sl-Z) toward publication in 2009 or 2010. At the Wisconsin Book Festival, Hall is joined by Robert Easton (the "Henry Higgins of Hollywood") and Simon Winchester (author of The Professor and the Madman and The Map That Changed the World) at 5 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 10, at the Wisconsin Historical Society's headquarters, for "The Dictionary of American Regional English Toasts Fred Cassidy: On to Z!"
The Daily Page: What can the Wisconsin Book Festival audience expect of DARE's toast to Fred Cassidy?
HallM: Anyone who knew Fred will recall the unquenchable optimism that was one of his most endearing traits. Despite having to scrabble for funding for the DARE project for its entire history (starting in 1963), Fred always assumed that somehow, somewhere, we would find enough to keep the project going. And somehow we have managed.
During the last couple of years of his life, he adopted the rallying cry, "On to Z!" as a means of boosting staff morale and encouraging contributors to help us reach the end of the alphabet. So that phrase will certainly play a role in a toast, as will our appreciation of Fred's generous spirit and warm humanity. But now that we have made plans for the electronic edition of DARE, Z is not the end of the project.
So after raising a glass and toasting Fred with "On to Z!" we will look even further ahead and echo Dr. Seuss's sentiments as we call out together, 'On Beyond Zebra!"
How did you manage to lure Robert Easton and Simon Winchester to this celebration?
Robert has been a fan of DARE for a couple of decades. Fred Cassidy became aware of him when an English Department colleague returned from a trip with an airline magazine that featured an article about Robert's work as a dialect coach. In the accompanying photo, Robert was holding a copy of Fred's Dictionary of Jamaican English! Fred wrote him an appreciative note, and the two became friends. Robert has used many of DARE's audiotape recordings to study dialects from across the U.S. The Wisconsin Book Festival event will actually be the third time that Robert and Simon and I have collaborated to talk about American dialects and DARE.
When you were introduced to Prof. Cassidy, what were your first impressions of him?
When I was a graduate student at Emory University in Atlanta nearly forty years ago, my advisor put on a conference for linguistic geographers and hosted a party for the participants. Fred was there, along with other big names in the field, and they were all very convivial, swapping stories and singing 'language songs," with topical lyrics set to familiar tunes.
I had intended to introduce myself to Fred and say that I hoped someday to work for DARE. But I didn't have the courage to break into the circle of famous scholars to introduce myself. And that's a shame, because Fred was a very welcoming and unthreatening person, and would have been cordial and friendly.
When I did meet him half a dozen years later, after he had hired me sight unseen, I regretted my earlier hesitance but was glad to finally have the opportunity to work with him. He was my employer, of course, but he also became my mentor, and was, over a period of twenty-five years, a true friend.
What anecdotal memory do you have of him that best represents Prof. Cassidy's stewardship of the Dictionary of American Regional English?
Fred Cassidy loved to talk about DARE, and he jumped at any opportunity to introduce people to the project, whether by talking to university classes, or by going to local service organizations, statewide historical societies, scholarly associations, or the Johnny Carson and Jay Leno shows! This was not just a chance to have personal moments in the sun -- Fred recognized that even if he were to accept every speaking engagement that came along, there would still be only a small proportion of people in the country who would know about DARE. But he believed that if only he could tell enough people, he would ultimately interest the person who could be the Maecenas DARE needed in order to reach completion. His irrepressible enthusiasm was one of the most effective tools he had to win over granting agencies and private donors.
What three lessons did he bequeath to you that have proven most substantial to your own tenure as DARE's chief editor?
First, it takes a cheerleader to keep a project like this alive. And although I would never have guessed I had the temperament to take on that role, I've discovered that I actually enjoy it! Second, although one or two people may be publicly associated with an enterprise, it can only survive with the collaborative efforts of all of its staff members. And DARE has been extremely fortunate to have had a very talented and dedicated staff for its whole history. Third, everyone needs a proofreader!
When it comes time to celebrate the centennial of your own birth, what form might you like the toast to take?
I'd like to think that I was able not only to reach the end of the alphabet, but also to shepherd DARE into its electronic version so that others could revise and update it into perpetuity. Perhaps the toast could be, "From Z to eternity!"
In bestowing a National Endowment for the Humanities grant on DARE recently, one of the judges called it "an American treasure." How would you quantify or qualify DARE's value as an American treasure?
It's impossible to quantify, of course, but there are certainly many ways to describe its value as an American treasure. It not only records and preserves the words and phrases of our past that may have gone out of use, but it is a reflection of all the richness and diversity of our culture over time.
That diversity can be seen in the different words we use for the same thing (is the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street a berm? boulevard? devil strip? parking strip? parkway? terrace? tree belt? tree lawn?); it shows up in the names of our favorite foods (bratwurst, cabrito, czarnina, golumpki, kolacky, kringle, lutefisk, pierogi, suelze); we find it in the kinds of games children play; we recognize it in the terms we use to address family members (are your grandparents grandma and grandpa? granny and grampy? mee-maw and pa-paw? oma and opa?); and it turns up in answer to all the questions asked in the DARE fieldwork.
But there are also many other ways in which DARE has proved its value. I plan to talk about these on October 10, so I don't want to spoil the story now. But I can tell you that you'll hear how DARE has become a treasure to people like forensic linguists, family physicians, psychologists and psychiatrists, language therapists, and actors, as well as to the people you might expect to find value in our work -- teachers, researchers, librarians, writers, and oral historians.
You inherited Prof. Cassidy's rallying call, "On to Z." What is the status of Vol. V? When can we expect its publication?
We're well into the W's now, with such intriguing entries as whistle-bicky (for a woodcock, in Upstate New York); willywags (for 'the boondocks,' in Maine); winklehawk (for a three-cornered tear in fabric, in the Hudson River Valley); and winter potatoes (for the rounded stones that work their way to the surface of a farm field as the ground freezes and thaws, right here in Wisconsin). The letter W is huge, however, so it may take us longer than we'd like to get to Z. We still hold out some hope that Volume V might come out late in 2009, but publication might be in 2010 instead.
When Vol. I was published in 1985, the first term it defined was "a." When Vol. V is published, what will be the last term defined at the far opposite end of the alphabet?
We won't know until we get there, but zydeco is a possibility. Although the word has become fairly widely known in recent years, it certainly started out as a very regional term.
Once you and all the other editors and contributors to the Dictionary of American Regional English have found your way on to Z, what happens then? What is next for DARE?
After the letter Z, we'll immediately start working on Volume VI, which will include the bibliography; a cumulative index to all the regional, etymological, and usage labels in DARE (which will allow people to answer such questions as, "What words are characteristic of Texas? or Connecticut? or Wisconsin?" "What words came into our language from German? or Russian? or Norwegian?" "What words are particularly common among women? or older people? or African-Americans? or rural people?"); and many sets of DARE maps on facing pages that will make it possible for readers to see at a glance the contrastive distributions of lexical sets like hero, hoagie, grinder, sub, torpedo, and Cuban for a sandwich in a long bun. As it is now, readers have to consult the individual volumes to discover these complementary patterns, so this compilation will make a wonderful teaching tool as well as a great coffee table book.
When can we anticipate a digital edition of DARE?
We have done much of the preparatory work for the electronic edition already, but Harvard University Press has told us it would like to give the print edition a couple of years on bookstore shelves before making the digital version available. The market is changing quickly, however, so we are hopeful that the digital DARE may see the light of day before then.
The theme of this year's Wisconsin Book Festival is "Domestic Tranquility." How might you define domestic tranquility? And how does the Dictionary of American Regional English contribute to domestic tranquility?
Domestic tranquility has many facets, of course, but in terms of language, it's hard to imagine tranquility in a situation where people don't understand the words others are using! DARE can help to span that breach.
Out of all the thousands upon thousands of terms contained in DARE, which are your three favorites? Why are they your favorites?
How can I limit them to three? My all-time favorite is bobbasheely, a word that proved to be a puzzle, but one that was ultimately solved. (We'll have copies of DARE at the Book Festival event so you can look it up!) And then there's scrid, a nice New England word that means 'a piece, scrap, bit'; and redd up, a Scots term found in the North Midland (especially Pennsylvania) meaning 'to tidy up' or 'to clear off (a table)'; and pipjenny for a pimple, found in the Mid and South Atlantic states; and fly-up-the-creek for a bittern; and tickly-bender for rubber ice... I can't leaf through any of the volumes without finding favorites. Many words strike my fancy purely for their sounds, others for their folk humor, others because they reflect ethnic influences or have interesting geographic distributions. I think that anyone who browses in DARE will find favorites right away.
Amazon.com customers who purchased various volumes of the Dictionary of American Regional English also bought the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang. Which other references might you recommend as complements to DARE?
I would second the recommendation of the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (which is now being completed at Oxford University Press). I'd also recommend the Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English by Michael B. Montgomery and Joseph Sargent Hall (no relation to me!).
Among the other presenters and programs scheduled for this year's Wisconsin Book Festival, which are you most looking forward to attending?
If I were going to be in town, I would be sure to hear Alan Weisman, author of The World Without Us. I regret having to miss that talk. His radio interviews have been fascinating.
What was the last book you read that you would recommend to friends or strangers, and why would your recommend it?
I would recommend Leif Enger's Peace Like a River, for its very humane exploration of family ties.
What question has nobody ever asked you about DARE that you most wish someone would ask, and how would you answer it?
"How is it that you're making such swift progress? The Oxford English Dictionary took much longer." I would probably have to pick up my teeth from the ground before crying, "Oh, thank you for understanding what it takes to create a work like this!"