Requiem for a Dictionary? or Life Support?

A forensic linguist once used DARE to find a kidnapper, whose ransom note read “leave the money on the devil strip,” a term used in northern Ohio. Image courtesy DARE archives.

Since the 19th century, one of the grandest of scholarly projects in the humanities has been the making of historical dictionaries. These are comprehensive multivolume dictionaries that aim to cover a language in all its historical depth and contemporary breadth. The best known of these is the Oxford English Dictionary, begun in 1857, published in installments from 1884 to 1933, and when completed amounting to 13 massive volumes.

That first edition of the OED neglected the English spoken outside of the British Isles, so to fill a particular portion of that gap, the University of Chicago Press sponsored a four-volume Dictionary of American English on Historical Principles in four volumes, begun in 1925 and published between 1936 and 1944.

And this brings us to the greatest American lexicographical project of the latter 20th century, the Dictionary of American Regional English. Like its predecessors, it took many years to write and publish. Work began in 1963. Volume I, edited by Frederic G. Cassidy, an English professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, was published in 1985. The last of the six volumes of words from all corners America, edited by Joan H. Hall, was published in 2013. (Full disclosure: I am executive secretary of the American Dialect Society, the longtime sponsor of DARE.)

The uniqueness of DARE is evident in a comparison Hall recently made between DARE and a standard wordlist known as WordNet. Of 75,135 headwords in DARE, she reported, 61,359 are not found in WordNet.

In the past, when the last of the massive volumes saw print, the project would be finished, the office closed, and the staff dispersed to whatever future callings. The dictionary, with suitable honors and awards, would rest in peace in reference libraries for the benefit of future scholars.

But this is the 21st century. And in this digital age, reference works are not just entombed; they have the possibility of eternal life, or at least continuing life, not weighing down a researcher’s shelves but existing weightless in the cloud, available with a touch of a keyboard and a click of a mouse.

It’s not just the weightlessness that makes the electronic version so convenient. It allows sophisticated searching and correlation of the entries and the information associated with them.

All this is well known. The virtues and features of DARE, including its electronic version, have been celebrated in Lingua Franca before. What is new is making public the news that, for lack of funds, the updating of DARE may come to an end in the next few months.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel raised the warning last week in a comprehensive article by Mark Johnson with the pointed headline, “”UW out of money for groundbreaking project.”

This monumental work of scholarship has required monumental amounts of money, and the money is about to dwindle to a trickle. What supports a few staff members now will allow for only one part-time person in the coming fiscal year.

Unless everyone helps out. So here is a blatant request for support: You can click on “Make a Gift” at the DARE website.

Or, to do it the 21st century way, try crowdsourcing here (where you’ll also find out what DARE and the Wisconsin forward Nigel Hayes have in common).

I DARE you.

And by the way, go Badgers!



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