DARE Up in the Air


The DARE map (top), with state codes, compared with a geographic map. DARE’s map is based on population density as of the 1960s. It shows responses DARE collected during fieldwork in 1965-70.

Where does a dictionary reside nowadays?

In the cloud, of course.

But what if was created before there was a cloud? Then you’d have to look for it on the ground, in ink on paper.

And on paper, perhaps the most monumental lexicographic enterprise in the field of American English has just been completed: the Dictionary of American Regional English, with some 60,000 entries and thousands of maps, published in six 8¾-by-11¼-inch volumes by Harvard University Press. Too bad it’s not online. RIP, right?

Wrong. In this century, if you’re a dictionary, you have a chance for an afterlife online. You need to be online. So DARE is getting ready to ascend into the cloud.

But this next and vital phase of the dictionary, its digital edition, could be in jeopardy.

Over the years, work on DARE  has been made possible by grants from the U.S. Office of Education, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation, the University of Wisconsin, private foundations, and many hundreds of individuals. But times are hard. Thanks to budget cuts in all sectors of the economy, Joan Hall, DARE’s editor, may have to lay off most of her staff at the University of Wisconsin at Madison by July 1.

DARE was begun half a century ago, when dictionaries were printed on paper for lack of an alternative. The Internet had barely been invented, and the Web wasn’t even a gleam in its founder’s eyes. From the start, DARE was created using the most advanced computer technology available, but it was only near the start of the 21st century that computers and the Internet became sophisticated enough to host a dictionary.

Led by the example of the Oxford English Dictionary, we now take it for granted that a dictionary will have a Web presence. And that has long been the plan for DARE too. To make it accessible beyond the libraries and few individuals that have the six hefty volumes, DARE has been collaborating with Harvard University Press to become available online by the end of this year.

Putting it online not only lightens one’s bookshelf by a foot of width and some 30 pounds, it also enables instant results for searches that would in print take weeks or months. The dictionary itself lists entries alphabetically, of course—aa (Hawaiian rough lava), Aaron’s rod (New England succulent plant), abra (Texas, a  narrow pass), to give a few examples from the top of the alphabet. With the online DARE, you would be able instantly to locate all words with a particular regional, ethnic, social, or educational label. New Orleans, for example? cala (a fritter), camelback (house higher in back than in front), and many more.

You could combine search terms, of course, and you’d be able to search not just the headwords but the full text, like any other modern online dictionary. You’d be able to hear audio of original DARE field recordings too, collected by researchers who ventured in “Word Wagons” to a thousand communities throughout the United States. And you’d be able to look at all the responses to all the questions, tracing those that interest you back to the exact location and the individual (described by age, sex, race, education, and community type) who offered them.

What’s more, the online dictionary would be kept up to date by the dictionary staff. Volume 1 was published nearly 30 years ago, and the staff has since collected many corrections and updates. Furthermore, digital libraries can now provide antedatings and postdatings for  a large number of entries.

If you’d like a preview of DARE Digital, and even to participate in beta testing, just go to Harvard University Press.

But more important … Help!

To build the bridge from print to online, during the next six months or so, DARE is asking for help from the people who are waiting eagerly to log on, whether for business (writing novels, coaching actors, researching history, understanding litigants or patients, etc.) or pleasure.

You can go to DARE’s Web site, learn about the dictionary and its ethereal future, and while you’re there click on the red “DONATE” button, to ensure that DARE will have an afterlife.


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