All writing is built on words, phrases and other fundamental elements of dialect. Thus it was fitting that one of the first events on the 2007 Wisconsin Book Festival schedule was the panel convened to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Frederic G. Cassidy's birth. Cassidy was the founding editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English, an ambitious effort of more than 40 years (and counting) to catalogue the distinctive dialects and turns of phrase particular to the United States. Cassidy died in 2000, at 92. But his legacy endures.This was clear during "The Dictionary of American Regional English Toasts Fred Cassidy: On to Z!" Held at 5 p.m. Wednesday at the Wisconsin Historical Society's headquarters on State Street's Library Mall, the program was introduced by Wisconsin Book Festival Director Alison Jones Chaim. The panel itself was anchored by Joan Houston Hall (center), who succeeded Cassidy as DARE's chief editor.
Hall was flanked by August Rubrecht, one of dozens of DARE fieldworkers who fanned out across the U.S. in the mid-1960s and did the difficult work of asking hundreds of people what words and expressions they used to identify thousands of specific things and activities in their neck of the woods; and Simon Winchester, best-selling author of such titles as A Crack in the Edge of the World, The Map That Changed the World and The Professor and the Madman -- the latter a critically acclaimed account of the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary, and of the contributions to the O.E.D.'s lexicography by a man institutionalized in an asylum for the criminally insane.
With several members of the late Cassidy's family in the audience for the salute, Hall led off by sharing some of her fondest memories of her predecessor and his enthusiasm for the enormous undertaking. She highlighted his adoption of the rallying cry "On to Z!" as a morale booster for the dictionary's staff during those times when the laboriousness of the project approached its most burdensome and progress slowed to its most incremental pace, and of his desire to see the dictionary all the way through to publication of its final volume.
This desire would prove unrealized, but not for any lack of determination. Cassidy's dedication to DARE, Hall remembered, was nonpareil. He was working on DARE right up until his death, at 92 -- a chronological age belied by his intellectual vigor.
Hall's introduction also drew on a wealth of anecdotes illustrating the utility and significance of the Dictionary of American Regional English to scholars, to Hollywood voice coaches, to forensics experts and law enforcement, and to a greater understanding of each other as citizens of the United States, where the way we talk can vary not only from region to region and state to state but county to county and valley to valley.
Ruprecht -- recently retired from the UW-Eau Claire faculty -- was next, relating a number of vivid and engaging stories that illustrated the challenges and rewards of asking people to volunteer a week or more to answering hundreds of questions compiled by Cassidy for the questionnaire on which DARE was built. Touring through Arkansas, Delaware, Louisiana, New York and Tennessee, Ruprecht had to win the trust not only of volunteer informants but of the police and sheriffs' departments whose jurisdictions he traversed.
Traveling in what was called a Word Wagon, he encountered suspicion with such regularity that he came to develop strategies that proved effective at overcoming it, but nonetheless had to adjust his approach with some frequency to suit situations as individual as the distinctive dialects he encountered. When he was able to win people over, he found himself enjoying not only a privileged perspective on our shared heritage but also, in many cases, friendships with strangers who gave him entree into the local cultures he was visiting.
Listening to Ruprecht's compelling recollections -- rich in narrative detail -- redoubled my appreciation for the vast effort invested in the groundwork completed for DARE.
Winchester then took the baton, relating a tale about how he came to appreciate the Dictionary of American Regional English. The story is too long, meandering and well-crafted to relate here. You had to be there, because it was too much of the moment to be related in print and out of context. But he concluded with words of hope for Hall and the rest of the DARE staff, as well as all its fieldworkers and enthusiasts who have supported and followed the project for more than 40 years now.
Noting that DARE's fifth volume (taking the dictionary from Sl on to Z) is targeted for publication sometime in the next couple years, Winchester observed that after a comparable span in its own chronology, the Oxford English Dictionary had advanced only to the letter C.