a bit about DARE

It’s been a good week for bad news, as the saying goes. So I wanted to add my voice to the general clamour about the magisterial Dictionary of American Regional English. Forget Webster and Merriam—the DARE and no other is the Great American Dictionary. I’ll go further: DARE is one of the great ethnographic and lexicographic endeavours in recent history.


Arroyo. Branch. Brook. Creek. Crick.

You can read it’s full, remarkable history here. In six volumes and over 30 pounds, it records the quirks, coinages, and importations, the colour, idiosyncrasy, and virility of vernacular American English. These aren’t the words you’ll hear on the news—but if you grew up in the US, these are words you heard in the neighbourhoods, at the store, around the block. These words are the cultural, oral, lexical memory of immigrant American.

Angleworm. Baitworm. Eelworm. Fishing worm. Georgia wiggler.

So I didn’t want to see it in the news this week, such a week for bad news. But there it was, in black and white. Sure, times are hard all over, but times must be bitterly hard when a research project so momentous can’t secure adequate funding.

Chief Editor Joan Hall told Language Log:

On the heels of our recent triumphs, DARE is experiencing a serious financial crisis. The situation is the result of a number of factors: we were not awarded federal and private grants we had anticipated receiving; private gifts have declined precipitously; a major foundation that has provided a large gift annually for twenty years has decided it must move on to other worthy projects; the UW has endured grave reductions in state support, and the College of Letters and Science is unable to provide assistance.

This leaves us in a very distressing situation, in which I have been obligated by University personnel rules to send layoff notices to the whole staff as of July 1, 2013

Biffy. Chic sale. Johnny house. Mrs. Jones.

At Lingua Franca, Allan Metcalf tries to keep upbeat as he spells out what’s at stake, and what could be irretrievably lost:

Led by the example of the Oxford English Dictionary, we now take it for granted that a dictionary will have a Web presence. And that has long been the plan for DARE too. To make it accessible beyond the libraries and few individuals that have the six hefty volumes, DARE has been collaborating with Harvard University Press to become available online by the end of this year.

Putting it online not only lightens one’s bookshelf by a foot of width and some 30 pounds, it also enables instant results for searches that would in print take weeks or months. The dictionary itself lists entries alphabetically, of course—aa (Hawaiian rough lava), Aaron’s rod (New England succulent plant), abra (Texas, a narrow pass), to give a few examples from the top of the alphabet. With the online DARE, you would be able instantly to locate all words with a particular regional, ethnic, social, or educational label. New Orleans, for example? cala (a fritter), camelback (house higher in back than in front), and many more. […]

If you’d like a preview of DARE Digital, and even to participate in beta testing, just go to Harvard University Press.

Bear claw. Cruller. Doughnut hole. Fastnacht. Maple bar. Sinker.

Over on his private blog, John McIntyre fulminates with barely contained fury at the whole situation:

We, who used to think of ourselves as a great and puissant nation, find ourselves unable to come up with the ready for the continuation of a long-running academic project that establishes something central about our greatness as a nation: the richness of our language. […]

We see every day people wearing American flag lapel pins and prating about their patriotism. A true and sincere patriotism, one that properly understood who we are and where we came from and why it is important to know this, would not allow the lights to go dark at DARE.

Chunk-floater. Fence-lifter. Goose-drownder. Gully-washer. Stump down. Toad-strangler.

Lesser projects would roll over and die at the slightest threat to funding—and have. But the staff at DARE is well aware of the significance out their work, and aren’t giving up easy. Hall writes:

What I hope that you will do is to help publicize our plight and let language mavens and fans of DARE know that if they’d like to help us, it’s easy to do. The home page of the DARE website (www.dare.wisc.edu) has a “Donate” button. It will take readers to a secure University of Wisconsin Foundation site through which tax-deductible gifts can be given to DARE.

We’re on the verge of publishing the digital edition, and we can’t fail now!

In other words, they’re taking the genuinely remarkable step of trying to float a major research initiative through crowdsourcing. Even if you’re not American, please consider clicking through and donating what you can; DARE isn’t just a US project, what they’re doing belongs to the whole of human culture. They’re appealing to the people who love words—and that should be all of us.

Antiglodin. Catabias. Catawumpus. Skee wampus. Sky west and crooked.

I have a couple thought stemming from all this, but I’ll put those in a later post. For now, go ahead—read about DARE, and give it what help you can.


[The lovely selection of words comes courtesy this link.]


3 thoughts on “a bit about DARE

  1. I think you could quite easily make the case that DARE is one of the great ethnographic and lexicographic endeavors in all history. When has another project of this scope even been attempted? It’s handily a peer of the OED itself.

  2. It may well be, although in concept it was based off a similar if necessarily smaller project in Britain, the English Dialect Dictionary. I wouldn’t even know how to compare it to other major ethnographic and linguistic works–where entire language families are analysed for the first time, for instance, or vanishing cultures/belief systems/languages are recorded. Or the libraries of tens of thousands for folktales. There is tremendous work being done. But I would agree–DARE deserves its place in the loftier pantheon of major ethno-linguistic studies.

  3. Pingback: Mr Pond in Print | The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond

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