The Dictionary of American Regional English is not just a rigorous scientific workit's a linguistic labor of love.
DARE, as it's commonly known, is a compendium of all those words we learn in our hometowns and from our family and friends. Unlike a standard dictionary, DARE focuses on the often weird and wonderful words of oral, regional English. For Wisconsinites, that includes those words like "bubbler" that provoke looks of confusion from those raised outside the Badger State.
Although the volumes produced by DARE are scholarly, they are also just plain fun to browse for anyone who loves language. Raved The New York Times upon publication of Vol. I, "While the dictionary is primarily designed as a work of reference, it is endlessly rewarding to dip into, and if you look up a particular word or phrase you are in constant danger of being seduced by something else." Concluded the Times reviewer, "It is a work to consult, and a work to savora work to last a lifetime."
And the work of DARE goes on. Chief editor Joan Houston Hall carries on the labor begun by her predecessor and mentor, Frederic G. Cassidy, who passed away in 2000 at the age of 92. DARE was truly Cassidy's life's endeavor. For the last 22 years he worked on the project, he refused a salary in order to help keep the project going. Today, it continues due to the diligent work of Hall, 10 other staff members and a cadre of volunteers, some of whom have donated their time to the project for as long as 16 years.
The enormity of the project is staggering. Volumes are released one at a time; the first (a detailed introduction plus letters A through C) appeared in 1985 and the most recent in 2002. Vol. 5 is expected in 2009, and there will eventually be a sixth volume that will serve as an index and distillation of the lettered volumes. Although DARE's offices are housed in Helen C. White Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, the work is published by Harvard University Press. The project is funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, National Science Foundation, private foundations and individuals. DARE continues to seek support to complete its work.
The painstaking research done for each entry explains the time-consuming nature of the project. DARE staff document a word's various meanings, origins, places it is in use, and its earliest and most recent known uses. Elaborate detective work is often necessary. (For an example of how careful research and serendipity can come together, read Joan Houston Hall's essay about "bobbasheely," one of her favorite words.)
Oral source material for DARE was collected from 1965 to 1970, when face-to-face interviews were conducted with English speakers in all fifty states. DARE researchers also work with written materials of many kinds: newspapers, novels, letters, diaries, histories and other writings from colonial times to the present. Numerous maps throughout DARE show the geographic distribution of certain words gathered during the interviews in 1,002 communities.
In the end, DARE is much more than just a dictionary. It offers rich and unique insights into not just language, but American life and culture in a broader sense. Although it has many practical uses for teachers, librarians, physicians, playwrights and others, it is also a treasure trove for any word lover. If you don't know your "plate pie" from your "potato bargain," DARE has the answers for you.