When the American Dialect Society (ADS) was founded in 1889, one of the major goals of its charter members was to do for the United States what Joseph Wright was doing for England in compiling his English Dialect Dictionary. But of course the task of making a dictionary of the dialects of the United States was going to be a lot bigger because of the size of this country.
So the Society began by publishing word lists made by professors who jotted down unfamiliar terms or expressions as they visited places new to them. For decades, lists were published in the ADS journals Dialect Notes (1890-1939) and Publications of the American Dialect Society (1944-). But the First World War intervened, then came the Depression, and then the Second World War, and no systematic plan had been made to carry out this project. Finally Fred Cassidy, a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, decided he had waited long enough. In the late 1940s, he and Audrey Duckert carried out a pilot project in Wisconsin, testing a questionnaire that had been based on all the word lists the Society had compiled over the years. It worked pretty well, so he refined the methods and the questionnaire and published the results in the Society’s journal in 1953. Still nothing happened. So in 1962 at the Society’s annual meeting he read a paper titled “The ADS Dictionary—How Soon?” The result was that he was appointed Chief Editor of the proposed dictionary.
Cassidy began by finalizing the very lengthy questionnaire that would address as many areas as possible of our daily lives: from time and weather to household items, farming, trees and flowers, birds and insects, school, courtship and marriage, religion, health, money—you name it. There were more than 1,600 questions.
Then he selected just over a thousand communities across the U.S., chosen to be as evenly distributed as possible while still sampling all the places that were notable for historic events or migration patterns. He recruited a group of 80 Fieldworkers (mostly graduate students, but also some professors), and between 1965 and 1970 they were sent out to the selected communities to interview people who had lived there all their lives. Initially, some of the Fieldworkers traveled in minimally-outfitted vans dubbed “Word Wagons.” Cassidy asked the Fieldworkers to weight the proportions of Informants to older people because he wanted to be sure to capture as many of the old-fashioned words as possible. (Those people had witnessed the rise of the automobile, the airplane, telephone, radio, television, general electrification, indoor plumbing, mechanization of farming—all tremendous changes in the way our society works—and they would still have had the words for the objects and processes of bygone eras.) But the Fieldworkers were also instructed to find Informants who were middle-aged and young, thereby providing data for comparison by age groups and letting us see some of the ways in which our language is changing. (Overall, 66% of DARE Informants were age 60 or older; 24% were between 40 and 59; 10% were under 39.)
The Fieldworkers had to go “cold” to their communities and find people who were natives of each place and who had the time and the interest to answer all or part of the questionnaire. Over a period of six years they managed to do interviews in 1,002 communities across the country, talking in all to 2,777 people.
The Informants who participated were also asked if they would make an audiotape recording; 1,843 of them graciously agreed to do so. Each one was asked to read a story called “Arthur the Rat” (a passage designed to include all the important pronunciation variants in American English) and to talk informally about any topic of interest. The resulting recordings thus provide both nationwide examples of the same text, allowing contrastive analysis of pronunciation across the country, and a large body of conversational speech comprising a major source of mid-twentieth-century oral history.
While the interviewing was being done, computer people in Madison had been working on the aspect of the project that makes DARE unique: the creation of the population-adjusted maps found in the text of the Dictionary, which show where in the U.S. particular words are used. The computer program also analyzes the social data for each Informant who uses the word so that we can determine whether there are disproportionate numbers of speakers who are old, middle-aged, or young, or who are male rather than female, Black rather than White, well educated rather than poorly educated (using five levels of education), or urban rather than rural (again, using five segments on the urban to rural scale).
The computer people took all of the data from the 1,002 questionnaires (approximately 2.3 million responses in all) and organized it in two formats: as an alphabetical index, which allows Editors to work systematically and to find any given word easily; and in a question-by-question format with responses given in descending order of frequency, which creates a lexical synonymy and allows a user to see the full range of responses.
In addition to the fieldwork data, the Editors use citations from a vast collection of printed materials, including the ADS lists, newspapers, government documents, histories, novels, poems, and ephemeral materials, to illustrate each entry word. Editors include the earliest known usage of each word, a sampling of other examples of use over time, and a contemporary example if possible. In this way, DARE provides a history of each of its headwords. The material from the DARE fieldwork is incorporated whenever appropriate, and maps are included in the text when they show regional distributions.
The editing of DARE began in 1975, with Volume I (Introduction and A–C) being published by Harvard University Press in the fall of 1985. The appearance of this long-awaited book was greeted with fanfare not only in the print media, but with reviews and interviews on radio and television as well. The result was that Volume I went through five printings within a year of its publication.
Celebratory events were held in Madison, Wisconsin (both in the office of Governor Tony Earl and on the campus of the UW-Madison), at the American Dialect Society’s annual meeting in Chicago, and at a “Hero Luncheon” at the Library of Congress, sponsored by Daniel Boorstin, Librarian of Congress. Guests at the Washington, D.C. event included Senator S. I. Hayakawa, Wisconsin Representative Robert Kastenmeier, New York Times language columnist William Safire, journalist Charles Krauthammer, American Folk Life Center Director Alan Jabbour, and Harvard University Press Editor Maud Wilcox, as well as Frederic Cassidy and Joan Houston Hall, representing the DARE staff.
Volume II (D–H) followed in 1991, Volume III (I–O) was published in 1996, and Volume IV appeared in 2002. Volume V, which includes the bibliography, was published in 2012, with a supplementary Volume VI (including responses to the DARE questionnaire, a cumulative index to the regional, social, and etymological labels used in DARE, and sets of contrastive maps) and an electronic edition to follow.
As Fred Cassidy had always expected, the DARE materials have been extremely useful to people such as librarians, teachers, historians, journalists, and playwrights. But they have also proved to be valuable in other fields as well: forensic linguists and detectives use DARE to help apprehend criminals; physicians use DARE to understand the folk and regional terms used by their patients for ailments and diseases; natural scientists use DARE to identify plants and animals based on regional and folk names; psychologists use DARE in conjunction with standardized vocabulary tests to diagnose aphasia; lawyers consult DARE with reference to questions of trademark and commercial use; and actors and dialect coaches use DARE’s audio collection to perfect their regional accents.