Reviews — From the November 2012 issue

The Humble Vernacular

A word-of-mouth dictionary

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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.

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

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

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.

Any discussion of DARE has to consider the DARE questionnaire, an amazing artifact, itself a product of the now-eclipsed America it was drafted to uncover. Many of the 1,847 questions are fill-in-the-blanks: “If somebody always eats a considerable amount of food, you say he’s a           ”; “When people bring baked dishes, salads, and so forth to a meeting-place and share them together, that’s a            meal.” The sense of the world here is nearly algebraic: that there are oblong cakes, overeaters, collaborative meals, and so on, is a given; we simply solve for the variable, be it potluck or glutton (or gourmet or gourmand or gourmandizer). The extraordinary immobility implied in these questions makes the fact that the questions were even asked, and by outsiders, especially surprising. DARE had its origins in the nineteenth century, when the American Dialect Society was founded, and in the late Forties, when the earliest work on the dictionary began, but it owes its palpable and delightful optimism to Sixties counterculture in its sunnier and friendlier manifestations. It is hard to conjure a mental image of young, scruffy grad students in the waning years of the civil rights movement spilling out of vans in the rural South and sitting down, on lawn chairs and over lemonade, with the region’s elderly. But that is apparently the kind of thing that happened.

The questions were not always easy to ask or to answer, nor were the answers always a joy to record. One of the items that seems to have elicited the largest number of responses was, no surprise, HH28: “Names and nicknames around here for people of foreign background.” All the usual suspects turn up: more than half the respondents answered nigger, with dago, mick, polack, and the rest following close behind. The more imaginative slurs are both scarcer and often more vicious: alligator bait meant “a black person, esp a black child” in parts of the South (the more common meaning for the phrase was “unpalatable food, esp liver”). There is only one insult for an Illinoisan (nobber), while there are dozens for Hungarians, Bohemians, Norwegians, and Swedes. A Swede was known, apparently, as “a Norwegian with his brains kicked out,” a Norwegian as “a Swede with his brains knocked out.” Juxtaposition is one of the great pleasures of any dictionary; to see these sorts of phrases sharing pages with humorous names for outhouses and hearses is to understand something about the uniquely American way in which cruelty and levity commingle.

Many of these racial slurs stem from wild guesses about people, unchecked hypotheses that arise when the circumscribed, immediate world—the world of the family and the neighborhood—gives way to fear or dread of anything outside the circle. They recall, a little, the wild traits Pliny the Elder associated with far-flung races of humans: sex-shifters, one-eyed people, one-legged jumping men, and so on. Much of the regional English in DARE takes wonder as the basic condition of daily life, and finds language appropriate to it. This language tends to diagnose consequences of phenomena rather than speculate about their essences or sources, as in the many extraordinary expressions for weather and weather-related events. Questions B24 and B25 asked informants to supply local names for sudden rainstorms:

chunk-floater [chiefly Sth, S Midl]
fence lifter [Ozarks, cwTN]
frog-strangler [chiefly Sth, S Midl]
goose-drownder [chiefly Midl]
gully washer [widespread exc
NEng, less freq Inland Nth, Pacific]
lightwood-knot floater [esp S Atl]
pour-down [scattered]
stump mover [Sth, S Midl]
toad-strangler [chiefly Gulf States, S Midl]
trash mover [chiefly Mid and S Atl, Lower Missip Valley]
turd-floater [esp TX, OK]

Every page of DARE shows the absolute centrality of metaphor and other forms of verbal figuration to colloquial speech. Naming storms for the damage they do, or foods for what they do to your stomach, or foreigners for the strange traits they exhibit—these tendencies suggest just how much of reality is established after the fact, in conversations about shared experience by people with a common world of reference. Dilate that circle of participants, and the game of language becomes much more boring, our names for things merely functional. Very little imaginative energy is expended anymore on naming big storms. (My answer, which is also Webster’s answer, to B24 would have been downpour.)

Because of its reliance on and scrupulous recording of personal testimony, DARE is one of the most poignant reference books ever compiled, a great exploration of the far reaches and dark corners of American cultural memory. Perhaps the most interesting DARE entries come from the childhood recollections of people who were in their sixties or older in the 1960s, and many readers of this book will turn first to the expressions they remember the old people using when they were young.

I suspect that many kids who are as bored as I was as a child, living in places where playmates were few and far between, eventually discover the small improvement on idle time provided by taking a ball, throwing it onto a low roof, and waiting for it to roll off in some unexpected direction. One day my friend from school came over, and we figured out that you could make a two-person game of this by stationing a player on either side of the building. It turns out that we were playing an established children’s game called, variously, Andy-over, Andy-Andy-over, Andy-Andy-Olin-coming over, Andy-over-the-coal-house, Andrew-over, Hand-it-Over, and Handy-Andy, among many other possibilities; the game is usually named for whatever the players call out when they throw the ball. (I think we said, “Here it comes!”)

The DARE editors are up-front about their special interest in children’s games, which yield them many of their most precious specimens. Most of these games are obsolete, but nothing is stopping children from bringing them back. A quarter of respondents knew the game “where you try to make a jackknife stick in the ground” as mumbledy-peg, so named because players had to pull the knife out of the earth with their teeth. Other games persist, though much of the language devised for them has vanished. My kids and I recently spent several minutes puzzling over a bag of marbles we’d bought at the town market. None of us had the least idea what to do with them, so we googled the rules for some simple marble games that might help fill an afternoon. DARE lists hundreds of variations—games with names like Purgatory, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, as well as Molasses and Cream, Bombsies, and Piggy in the Hole. There are, too, hundreds of names for marbles of various types: moonies, snotties, bombers. Variants of tag and hide-and-seek appear every few pages. This massive cataract of language is enough to make one cry uncle, or calf rope, or barley out, or I want a crab apple—or a perennial favorite, never out of style for long: mama.

DARE could be described as a dictionary of words that will never appear in the dictionary. Its native flora will not go invasive; no edition of Webster’s will ever be sullied by boocoodles or chib-chab. The dozens of calls for chickens or cows to come and eat, the “joking names for a branch railroad that is not very important or gives poor service”—these oddities and curios will remain in the forgotten byways of American English. The total bulk of English spoken at any one time is after all enormous compared with what makes it into the dictionary. How bizarre, then, to behold the tiny body of rogue words and usages, no more than a few hundred at any given time, that storm the gates of Standard English. This borderland is a site of many skirmishes involving the dictionary, which can seem like a beleaguered peacekeeping presence whose forces have been stretched thin. The stewards of Standard English always say that dictionaries are overcapitulating, but never so dramatically as in 1961, with the publication of the notorious Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. That volume’s allowances for nonstandard English were heralded as a slide into irredeemable cultural gibbergabber. Even many years later, David Foster Wallace wrote one of his most irritating essays partly about his own revulsion toward Webster’s Third, on the grounds that it included entries for abominations like irregardless.

The controversy over Webster’s Third is the subject of The Story of Ain’t, David Skinner’s spry cultural history of the word every educated person knows he is supposed to despise. In the Thirties, the National Council of Teachers of English held “Good Grammar Week,” which culminated in little routines where a character called Mr. Dictionary triumphed over a villain named Ain’t. And yet, as Skinner points out, ain’t was ubiquitous in popular culture (you could listen to “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” or dance to “Ain’t We Got Fun”), and the word could count both H. L. Mencken and Mark Twain as its spiritual fathers. In the Forties, the study of linguistics had made inroads into lexicography, and suddenly Webster’s, under its new editor Philip Gove, espoused “five basic concepts . . . as starting points”:

Language changes constantly
Change is normal
Spoken language is the language
Correctness rests upon usage
All usage is relative

A dictionary had to be a “faithful recorder,” since it could no longer “expect to be appealed to as an authority.” Will could mean “shall,” and shall “will”—actually shall, which was in almost total abeyance except for purposes of jesting, would probably dry up completely. The headlines seized on ain’t: “Saying Ain’t Ain’t Wrong” (the Chicago Tribune), “Ain’t Nothing Wrong with the Use of Ain’t” (the Louisville Times), and, most succinctly, “It Ain’t Good” (the Washington Sunday Star).

Before Gove was chosen as the editor of Webster’s Third, the job was offered to Frederic Cassidy—the founding editor of DARE. DARE defines ain’t calmly, as though it were just another name for a wildflower or dandelion wine, and not the flash point, class signifier, mark of barbarism, and line in the sand it weirdly became. I suspect that to a figure like Cassidy, as to anyone who has immersed himself in DARE, these squabbles look incredibly petty—an overrating of the power and prevalence of any one English, even the one allegedly spoken by newscasters and the debonair.

Sometimes it takes an outsider to America, a person without any stake in the matter, to hear our language clearly. On his American tour of 1842, Charles Dickens, who loved slang and (like Mark Twain) made vivid art out of it, was struck by how fix meant dozens of different things in different contexts: even today, Southerners say they are “fixing” to do this or that; the cranberry sauce and gravy at Thanksgiving are called the “fixings”; Allen Ginsberg wrote (in “Howl”) of “angel headed hipsters” in search of “an angry fix.” These American uses of the word date from the eighteenth century, but the golden age for American slang seems to have been in the early twentieth century, shortly after the London Times saluted American slang as “an art by itself” and singled out for special praise “bottom dollar,” “pan out,” and to “die with one’s boots on.”

Julie Coleman’s The Life of Slang suggests that slang is best savored from some distance: other countries’ slang can seem piquant without threatening pollution. But the main engine of current slang is not any particular region; real differences in speech these days have less to do with geography than with age. Technology is now inspiring and disseminating slang, mainly the slang cooked up by the young. Most people will have strayed at one time or another onto Urban Dictionary, the online compendium of slang so new it’s news. There we can find entries for Chick-fil-Atheist (“A Liberal, knowing Chick-fil-A’s open opposition to Gay marriage, yet still decides they make a mighty tasty sandwich”) and Mittconception (“A fundamental belief of Mitt Romney’s, based on mistaken understanding of an issue [or many]”).

Urban Dictionary is endless fun, but most of its raids on the language will almost certainly fail. I wish more attention were paid to language that will not fail, or vanish, or linger in colorful local obscurity. I tire of the notion that everything lively and real starts with the vernacular. If you grew up shy, friendless, and isolated, as I did, you spent more time reading than speaking, and the assumed priority of speech over writing was, in a very real sense, reversed. I still cannot really speak a sentence of any distinction until I have drafted it in my head first.

As a result, my spoken English sounds (to me, at least) very “written” and even stodgy—not because I am aping the upper classes or the British or whomever, but because writing has had to come before speaking. I mention this because it seems to me basically wrong that the language grows only in one direction—from speech to writing—with inclusion in the dictionary representing the crowning achievement for any word that started life in the humble vernacular. People worry about slang making it into the dictionary, but what if the reverse started happening? What if the strangest and most beautiful words in the dictionary spilled out into language, as though the book had sprung a leak? Robert Frost wrote about wanting to “bring to book” speech that had never been treated as worthy of poetry, but Frost himself constantly replenished his own spoken language by reading Milton and Herrick.

Someone should write a book about the persistence of literary vocabulary in our daily speech, and about the social disconnect caused when people are perceived by their communities as having bewilderingly large vocabularies. My guess is that a lot of the informants who contributed to DARE spent time in little rural libraries where they kept big tattered dictionaries on a stand in the reference room. That’s where you used to find the lonely provincial kids who loved big words, and who grew up to be our Langston Hugheses and our Marianne Moores. I hope those kinds of kids still exist somewhere.

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

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