Although the idea of a dictionary of the dialects of American English had been promoted by the American Dialect Society (ADS) as long ago as 1889, the reality of that project did not begin to take shape until 1962, when Frederic Cassidy, Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, was appointed Editor and encouraged to start working in earnest. It’s not that preparatory steps had not been taken in the six decades before then: the Society’s journal Dialect Notes had published many lists of local words and phrases between 1890 and 1939; the journal American Speech started publication in 1925; and the Society’s monograph series Publication of the American Dialect Society (PADS), had been publishing relevant material since 1944. But no individual had offered to head the effort to survey the entire country and edit the findings in the form of a dictionary.
Late in the 1940s, chafing at the inaction of the ADS, Cassidy had decided to do a pilot survey in Wisconsin to test the feasibility of a nationwide field survey. With graduate student Audrey R. Duckert, he combed the relevant publications and devised a lengthy questionnaire asking about as many topics of daily life as they could think of. Carrying out the survey using mailed packets of questions, Cassidy and Duckert determined that, with some modifications of the questionnaire, it would indeed be possible to undertake a country-wide examination of American English.
Cassidy was ideally suited for the task, having done his graduate work in English at the University of Michigan, where he worked on two lexicographic projects, the Early Modern English Dictionary (never published), and the Middle English Dictionary. In the 1960s he returned to lexicography with the publication (with Robert LePage) of the acclaimed Dictionary of Jamaican English.
Early in his tenure at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, he also served as a fieldworker for the Linguistic Atlas of the North Central States project. Both the lexicographic and the fieldwork experiences were germane for his task as Editor of the ADS project, ultimately named the Dictionary of American Regional English. (See the History section and the Introduction to Volume I in DARE for details of the implementation of the fieldwork and the editing of the Dictionary.)
Between 1939 and his official retirement from the UW–Madison in 1978, Cassidy moved rapidly through the ranks of Instructor, Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, and Full Professor. He taught courses in Old and Middle English, History of English, Beowulf, Chaucer, English Literature, Phonetics, Linguistic Geography, and Composition. His work with DARE officially began in 1963 (though it had occupied his time and imagination for years before that), and it continued well beyond his retirement and his status as Professor Emeritus. He continued to come regularly to the DARE offices to review Dictionary entries up until his death in June of 2000 at the age of 92. Details of Cassidy’s life may be found in the obituary by Joan Hall, published 2001 in Dictionaries, the journal of the Dictionary Society of North America, the memorial by John Algeo, and in the commemoration by August Rubrecht. Additional tributes may be seen in the Spring-Summer 2000 issue of the DARE Newsletter, the Fall 2002 issue, and the Fall 2013 issue. Fred Cassidy’s devotion to DARE and his determination to see it to the letter Z were legendary, and the rest of the DARE staff have pledged to finish the project in his honor.
By Frederic G. Cassidy, 1994
I’ve been places, places, traveled
most parts of the world. Seen the great
wonders of nature, of mankind
that fill the eyes, shake the brain;
troubled my body with heat and cold. I
have felt shrunken beside great
things, aroused to trembling, shivering,
all my inner flesh and blood aroused
by the need to recognize, to admit to some
overwhelming force of being
of which I am an infinitesimal
atom, a nearly-nothing, spectral,
that has not forgotten the birthing-cord,
the mother-tie, the separation
that never is complete, fully complete
until we die.
For each of us there is
a corner of earth, a refuge of green trees,
a cover of clean snow, rocks firmly
heaving above the sea, unreachable
horizons, small cress-grown creeks,
hard clayey fields, that we call “home.”
An infant grasps the hand of the old man.
The other grasps the earth and the waters
under the earth. If true love exists
this is a part of it.