Reviews — From the November 2012 issue

The Humble Vernacular

A word-of-mouth dictionary

Download Pdf
Read Online

Discussed in this essay:

The Dictionary of American Regional English, Volume V: Sl–Z, edited by Joan Houston Hall. Harvard University Press. 1,296 pages. $85. hup.harvard.edu.

The Life of Slang, by Julie Coleman. Oxford University Press. 352 pages. $27.95. oup.com.

The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published, by David Skinner. HarperCollins. 368 pages. $26.99. harpercollins.com.

The word lint comes from the word linen, which in turn derives from Old English l?n, meaning “flax.” Linen is spun flax; the byproduct of the spinning process (often, apparently, used for kindling) is the lint. Somehow lint came to refer to the stuff you find in your pockets and sock drawers, but first it had to fend off some worthy adversaries, among them the regional American word flug (sometimes phlug or fig). In California flug was reserved for the dust rolls under the sofa, while in New York it meant the nastiness you dig out of your belly button. Flug made a few sheepish appearances in mainstream American English, turning up in “Finnley Wren,” a story by the Saturday Evening Post writer Philip Wylie, and later in the 1952 Marilyn Monroe comedy We’re Not Married. But flug soon went the way of the substance it described. The culture had cast its irrevocable verdict, and it was for lint.

The story of flug is to be found in the Dictionary of American Regional English, the fifth and final volume of which, ending with zydeco, has just been published. (A supplementary volume, with maps and an index, is due out in January.) DARE, as it is known, has the information you will need to bush around (discuss) the difference between bush-busters (hillbillies) and bush eels (rattlesnakes). One could make a sport out of guessing the meanings of DARE entries. A hand-roomance is a term from marbles. It will not win you a handsome husband, a phrase for “the last piece of food left on a plate” that suggests old maid, the game in which the player with the last card loses. At the ends of meals, or card games, or youth, you get one last chance at happiness: either you fetch a handsome husband or you become an old maid. A pretty interesting story about America could be told by noting the way its inhabitants, a hundred or so years ago, took the vestiges of European courtship rituals and turned them into card games and dinnertime fun.

Many of the entries in DARE are appearing in print for the first time, though they may be many generations old, passed down in an extended game of telephone whereby a term like footfeed becomes footfeet before it yields to the standard English accelerator or gas pedal. If you are assembling a conventional dictionary, your job, though wearisome, is straightforward: comb through every book you can get your hands on and hire a team of trusted helpers to do the same. James Murray, the famed editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, kept its entire contents, in the form of hundreds of thousands of slips of paper, in a fireproof shed he called the Scriptorium. A dictionary is by its very nature biased toward the written—the OED sprang out of a call to document “every word in the literature of our language”—and every method ever devised for creating one makes all but certain that spoken English will remain on the margins, a kind of ugly rumor threatening to undermine everything dictionaries stand for.

But DARE is a word-of-mouth dictionary, as a glance at any of its entries will suggest. Most of the items in these volumes were collected over a five-year period in the late Sixties, when DARE workers armed with reel-to-reel tape recorders fanned out into one thousand specially selected communities across the land to locate and interview “informants.” The communities had to be non-transient, “stable.” The informants, who were required to have lived in their communities more or less their entire lives, tended to be old—since, as DARE’s editors put it, “folk language is traditional, and older people remember many things that young ones have never heard of.” There was no pretense of covering the entirety of American slang, no desire to capture the way commuters on Metro-North talked about commodities or students in Berkeley discussed drugs. As the preference for old people suggests, what those volunteers really wanted was to capture a moment in time: the pre-homogenized past, the period just before televisions and radios and everything that followed obliterated those local realities distinct from one another and from the world at large.

Previous PageNext Page
1 of 4

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $45.99/year. Or purchase this issue on your iOS or Android devices for $6.99.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
Share
teaches at Wellesley College. His fifth book, Bicentennial: Poems and Plays, is forthcoming from Knopf.

More from Dan Chiasson:

Readings From the November 2013 issue

Away We Go

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2015

A Camera on Every Cop

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

New Books

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the Shadow of the Storm

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Measure for Measure

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content
Close

Please enjoy this free article from Harper’s Magazine.