Soda or Pop? Scholars Plan to Map All of America’s Regional English, Again

It took 50 years for editors to put together the Dictionary of American Regional English. Now they're heading back into the field.

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Alex Belomlinsky

In 1965, bands of surveyors drove their Dodge vans every which way out of Madison, Wisc., starting a project that would take nearly a half century to complete. Their work—going door to door and asking what people called that strip of grass between the street and the sidewalk or those delicious round things you put syrup on and eat for breakfast—became the Dictionary of American Regional English, a six-volume catalog of the things that are only said in Maine or Appalachia or Southern Texas.

The final volume of DARE came hot off the Harvard University presses in 2012. One might think that after completing such an ambitious project, mapping tens of thousands of folk terms from sea to shining sea, the editors would sit back and bask in their book reviews. But one would be wrong. On Monday, the team based at the University of Wisconsin unveiled a website where they’re starting the project all over again.

This time, the editors were inspired by a desire to fight nasty rumors, at least in part. “For a long time, we’ve been hearing the truism that American English has become homogenized,” says chief editor Joan Houston Hall, “by the fact that our population is so mobile and the fact that we often read the same media.” She concedes that language is changing but thinks the notion that Americans now have one uniform way of referring to everything is a bunch of malarkey, as people living in the Midwest might say.

Just like last time, the surveying is starting in Wisconsin, a place where DARE workers originally found people uttering the Norwegian exclamation “uff-da!” and referring to “squeaky cheese,” curds so fresh that they squeak when you chew them. If you live in the Badger State, you should go check out the questionnaire here. Hall says it would probably take a couple days to go through all the topics, which range from religion to disease to media, but Wisconsonites are invited to complete as much or as little as they like.

Some things will be different this time, too. For starters, the surveying is largely going to be done online rather than on foot. There are also question updates, reflecting how our lives have changed since flower children roamed the streets. For instance, questions about words people use while farming with their oxen have been cut. In their place are new queries, like what do you call the device you use to change the channel on the TV? “Is it a remote?” Hall suggests. “A changer, a clicker, a turner?” And what do you call the thing you put around a hot cup of coffee to keep from burning your hand? A sleeve, a collar, a wrap—or for those who use the technical term, a zarf?

The questions might seem trivial but there are real-world applications for some of the answers. Hall gives the example of a doctor who moved to western Pennsylvania and had a patient come in complaining that he was “riftin’” and had “jags” in his “leaders.” Translated, this meant that he was belching and had sharp pains in the tendons in his neck. She’s also helping publishers update a psychiatric test meant to gauge cognitive loss by having certain patients identify pictures. As it stands, if test-takers see a picture of stilts and say they’re tommy walkers, a Southern regionalism, their test incorrectly reflects that they no longer know what stilts are. Hall points out that similar misunderstandings can have serious effects in the classroom or the courtroom.

For scholars and nerds, of course, there is an inherent value to this work. They will be satisfied by the beautiful, funny variety of American language, without ever thinking about it. “It’s part of the historical record,” Hall says. “Words and phrases that you use with your friends or your family might not be found in any dictionary.” Consider what you call your grandparents, she says. It might be mema and papa or nana and pops, or if you’re Barack Obama, toot, short for the Hawaiian word tutu.

The Wisconsin-only survey will be up for the next six months or so. Then Hall and her team moves on the inevitable next task in an enormous project like this: trying to raise enough money to take it nationwide, which they hope to do in early 2015. “This is an attempt to find out just what has happened to American regional English over the last 50 years,” she says. Hall plans on proving that it’s just as rich and diverse as it was when those Dodge vans drove out of Madison—a place where that little strip between the street and the sidewalk is called a terrace.

This is an edition of Wednesday Words, a weekly feature on language. For the previous post, click here.