In Memoriam: Frederic Gomes Cassidy by John Algeo

Fred Cassidy belonged to a select tribe of twentieth-century scholars of American English respected for the depth of their knowledge, admired for the breadth of their interests, and loved for the humaneness of their natures. Their names roll off one’s tongue like a Carl Sandburg poem or a magical incantation:

Clarence Barnhart, Charles Fries
Margaret Bryant, Philip Gove
Arthur Kennedy, Louise Pound,
Albert Marckwardt, Kemp Malone,
Raven McDavid, Thomas Pyles,
James McMillan, Allen Walker Read.

In beginning such a list, the maker finds himself in the quandary of the Oxford divinity student whose final examination had only one question: “Distinguish between the major and minor prophets.” After some deep thought, the student answered the question with tact and concision. He wrote: “Far be it from me to draw invidious distinctions among holy men.” If a favorite name is missing from my list, attribute the lack, not to an invidious distinction, but causa pro metrica. There can be, however, no question that among the majorest of the prophets of our tribe is Fred Cassidy.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Fred immigrated with his family to the United States on the eve of his teen years. After attending Oberlin College and the University of Michigan (Ph.D., 1938), he joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin, where he celebrated the anniversary of his 120th term (or 60th year) in 1999. His scholarly work embraced many subjects, including Anglo-Saxon, English composition, Jamaican English, the place names of Dane County, fieldwork for the Linguistic Atlas, and of course preeminently the Dictionary of American Regional English.

Fred was, however, not only a scholar; he was also a person of charm, generosity, culture, and gemütlichkeit. He had what the Chinese call jen, or ‘human-heartedness’. He was a Mensch. He mentored (to use a currently fashionable neologism) several generations of budding scholars, sometimes in ways he was not even aware of. If I may be forgiven a bit of personal reminiscence, I can cite myself as one who was deeply influenced by Fred, even though my contact with him was usually at some distance and only sporadic. In fact, he was key to two turning points in my life, so I have always regarded him as an academic godfather.

I first met Fred between the pages of a book. On beginning graduate studies at the University of Florida, the first course I took was the History of the English Language, for which the textbook was Cassidy’s revision of Stuart Robertson’s Development of Modern English. I had been enticed into graduate school by Tom Pyles’s Words and Ways of American English and was decisively converted to the study of the English language by Cassidy-Robertson. That was the first turning point.

Some years later, when I was seeking asylum from Graduate School administration at the University of Florida by accepting a professorship at the University of Georgia, I had a call from Fred. He was chairing a committee concerned with the future of the journal American Speech, then unconnected with the American Dialect Society but published by Columbia University Press. The magazine was nearly three years in arrears of publication and seemed destined for desuetude. ADS members who were concerned about its prospective loss to the tribe had arranged with Columbia UP to assume responsibility for the journal and its editorship. Fred wondered if I would like to become its first ADS editor. I had no editorial experience, no periodical experience, and little else to recommend me. But I said yes, and that was a second turning point in my life.

I cite Fred’s influence on my life only as an example I know well of what I also know to be his much wider influence on the lives of many. As a person, Fred was just as genuine as he was as a scholar. But it is his scholarship that crowns his public achievements, and the jewel in that crown is the Dictionary of American Regional English. I was at the ADS meeting in the bosom of the MLA when Fred delivered a paper that sounded the clarion call for that work. He said that it was time for the ADS to make good on its early but thus far unfulfilled intentions to publish an American dialect dictionary. And he had a plan.

Frederic Cassidy and Joan Houston Hall in the DARE officesToday the three published volumes of DARE speak eloquently in testimony to the wisdom and realism of Fred’s plan. DARE is for the twentieth and twenty-first-century study of nonstandard varieties of American English what the original OED was for the nineteenth- and twentieth-century study of the standard variety of British English. It is a major work of scholarship. It is the fulfillment of a vocation of the tribe. Now well beyond the halfway point of its completion, DARE is blessed by being in the charge of another beneficiary of Fred’s mentoring.

Joan Hall, in recent years Fred’s coeditor, is excellently qualified to bring DARE to its completion, and all devotees of DARE and friends of Fred anticipate the joy of that happy event. The Dictionary of American Regional English is the most significant work of scholarship ever associated with the American Dialect Society, it is a premier contribution to the study of the English language in America, and it is a monument to Fred Cassidy. Age will not wither it, nor custom stale its infinite variety. Of DARE, we can say to Fred:

And thou in this shalt find thy monument, When tyrants’ crests and tombs of brass are spent. Indeed, there were giants in the earth in those days. We have known one of them.