Dictionary News: Joan Hall, DARE Spring 2020

DARE Wrap-up

Joan Hall

In early December, the last 238 boxes of documents recording the nearly sixty-year history of the Dictionary of American Regional English made their way to the University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives. (And those followed several hundred earlier boxes!) The closing of the DARE offices in Helen White Hall was necessitated by lack of funding.

Sorting through the correspondence, grant applications, progress reports, financial records, conference plans, computer programs, meeting minutes, etc., was both tedious and fascinating. Over my four years of cataloging, I discovered the details of early DARE history that I had only heard about previously; I was reminded of the disproportionate amount of Fred Cassidy’s and my time that had to be devoted to fund raising; and I appreciated anew the decades of labor and the dedication of the people who brought the project from fieldwork to a digital edition.

With respect to the fund raising, it was gratifying to see that, despite all the rejection letters, over the decades we managed to maintain a collaboration among federal agencies, private foundations, the UW-Madison, a few corporations, and thousands of individuals who simply loved language and wanted to see DARE succeed.

Reading some of the correspondence between Fred Cassidy and the other twentieth-century giants of language and lexicography was particularly fascinating. He had carefully preserved a letter from Otto Jespersen, to whom he had written for advice on his dissertation; he had framed a letter from Hans Kurath, who approved of his methods for starting the DARE fieldwork; and he kept voluminous folders of correspondence with colleagues such as Albert Marckwardt, Raven McDavid, Jim McMillan, Louise Pound, Allen Walker Read, and dozens more. What impressed me most about the Cassidy-Read file was that handwritten letters seemed to fly back and forth almost daily (and sometimes more than once a day.) While that’s the norm with email, I suspect that most of us would flinch at the thought of that kind of communication today!

The correspondence files also produced some surprises: In 1971, Fred wrote to all fifty state governors, trying to entice them to contribute funds to DARE by sharing some of the interesting words collected by fieldworkers in their states. For California he mentioned pick and pan man (a gold miner), balloon car (a forerunner of the San Francisco cable car), and stack pot (an oil-burning heater used in citrus groves); for Georgia he pointed to tabby (a building material made of oyster shells, sand, and water), saddle-bag house (a dogtrot), and hammock (solid land with trees in the Okefenokee Swamp); and for Alabama he offered rail runner (a fence lizard), cotton box (a high-sided flatboat), and bushwhack (to haul a boat along a stream by pulling on low-hanging branches). Although Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, and George Wallace were minimally polite in their responses, they made it clear that they had other uses for their states’ money. (Only one state—Ohio—responded with a gift.)

More recently, Fred received letters from George H.W. Bush (thanking him for explaining the phrase who shot John) and Colin Powell (a fellow Jamaican, who appreciated receiving a copy of Fred’s book Jamaica Talk.) Some less cordial correspondence, testy on both sides, is in the folders for Reinhold Aman and Joey Dillard.

DARE staffers were sometimes dismayed that Fred felt obligated to answer every piece of mail he received, but looking at the carbon copies of his responses today, I realize that he provided a great service to biographers of any of the thousands of Fred’s correspondents, not to mention a potential historian of the DARE project.

The DARE offices are now empty, but there is still a vestige of lexicographical enterprise.

Following the release of the digital version of DARE in 2013 , George Goebel began preparing new and revised entries, particularly those in the A—C range, for which we had not had the benefit of any digital resources. He has uploaded these to the DARE website on a quarterly basis, and Harvard University Press has agreed to upload them to the digital DARE annually. Despite the lack of any funding, George continues to do this work as a volunteer. As of the end of January, 2020, he has uploaded nineteen Quarterly Updates. Thank you, George!