Reviews — From the November 2012 issue

The Humble Vernacular

A word-of-mouth dictionary

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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.)

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

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