Language is always riddled with lexicons from the various regions, dialects and cultures of its diverse speakers. Although a new country, relatively speaking, America still has been able to amass an abundance of rich, poetic words that can evoke a pleasurable synesthetic experience for their readers. This is most evident, of course, in the great poetry and literature that is uniquely American by birth.
A guidebook has been in development for sometime now, called, the Dictionary of American Regional English. It’s a 50-year project to collect English as it has been spoken in various parts of this country.
The fifth volume, covering Sl through Z, was just recently published this month. If you happen to be a wordophile, or the kind of person who loves coming across new words in books, you may completely overindulge in this enormous volume.
Like the Oxford English Dictionary, this series builds a history of each word through chronologically ordered quotations, many taken directly from field interviews with local “informants.” For this reason, the Dictionary is a book you can actually sit down and read — not just for colorful words and quotations, but also for a tour of actions, objects, creatures and categories central to far-off or vanished pockets of American life.
Take Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic children’s novel Little House in the Big Woods. First published in 1932 and set in rural Wisconsin around 1870, it begins a series about Laura and her family that has gripped generations of children. Much of its appeal lies in Wilder’s depictions of a domestic life her modern readers will never know:
“Suddenly Grandma stopped laughing…Then she came to the door between the kitchen and the big room, and said: ‘The syrup is waxing. Come and help yourselves.'”
At this, everyone races outside, fills plates with snow and comes back for Grandma to pour hot maple syrup onto the snow, where it turns into soft candy. Gloriously, the children are allowed to “eat all they wanted, for maple syrup never hurt anybody.”
But what is this “waxing”?
Flip open Volume V, and it tells you: wax, or maple sugar wax, or wax on snow, used largely in the northeast, but apparently extending as far west into maple sugaring country as Wisconsin. The dictionary includes a 1954 quotation suggesting that festivities similar to the Ingalls family’s continued into the 20th century: “Now and then ‘snow parties’ do take place these days, with singing and dancing in the kitchen by the stove and the chief point of the party, eating ‘wax on snow.'”
Some other Americanisms in this collection include some words that serve as little windows onto a whole moral world: the sooner child, or one born less than nine months after the wedding, or the rather sweet phrase take notice to describe a widow or widower beginning once again to consider a possible romance. Sometimes you need to read the quotes to understand a term’s power, as in this tantalizing snippet of a Los Angeles trial in the entry for snake hips: “The defense attorney asked: ‘In the part of the hula you did do, did you do the snake hips?’ ‘No,’ Hall said … ‘Was Mrs. Dorsey dancing the snake hips?’ ‘Yes, the snake hips, the hula, or whatever you call it.'”
Writers have always been fascinated by the lexicons of various regions: It is these words that make writing feel authentically of a place. In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee diligently notes that Alabama cotton farmers plow fields with a twister—an implement also known as a turn shovel or turning plow, the Dictionary confirms. Frank Stanford’s long 1977 bayou poem The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You mentions a “crew of vines and snakes and vinegarroons,” and that last word roots the line firmly and beautifully in the South. (Vinegarroon, according to the Dictionary, is another name for the frightening whip scorpion, which emits a vinegary stench when provoked).
Like the Oxford English Dictionary, this series builds a history of each word through chronologically ordered quotations, many taken directly from field interviews with local “informants.” With specific examples in writing given, a detailed history of its usage and origins and personal examples, the dictionary is one that you can sit down and enjoy reading, and not just use it as a reference material.
Whether born and raised in America or not, without a doubt, the Dictionary of American Regional English will offer the reader a glimpse into a foreign world. A world that is uniquely American and an important time capsule of culture, language, and life.
Click here for the full article by Amanda Katz at NPR