The six-volume Dictionary of American Regional English, completed in print in 2012, continues to augment its coverage with quarterly updates by the chief editor, George Goebel, at the University of Wisconsin. The fifth update, for summer 2016, has just been published, with a dozen new entries and 40 revised ones. Most of the entries update or enrich the letter B, originally published in Volume I more than 30 years ago.
You can take a free look here.
What will you find? To begin with, a certain number of words associated with the South and South Midlands regions.
There, we are told, blackberries play a role in talk about weather. Blackberry weather is a cold spell in May during blackberry-flowering season. Blackberry winter is a spring or summer spell of cold weather. And blackberry rain is a spell of rain that comes in spring or early summer.
Also in the South and South Midlands, long ago, Billy Seldom was a name jokingly applied by slaves to wheat flour, which was rare at meals compared with corn bread, or Johnny Constant. As a later writer noted, “We called biscuits Bill Sildom and cornbread John Constant because we seldom had biscuits and constantly had corn bread.”
Likewise, a buzzard Christian was one who went to church only to attend funerals.
Even if you live in those areas, you may not have heard these terms. Workers on the dictionary looked for every regional word they could find, including rare and obsolete ones. But the evidence is strong, aided now by online databases.
Blackberry winter, for example, gets its earliest citation from a newspaper of 1883 in New Albany, Ind.: “Blackberry winter is what Uncle Joe Richardson calls it. He says it is a sure sign of a big crop, and always comes while the blackberries are in blossom.” The newest is from a 2007 newspaper in Lubbock, Tex.: “A few mornings ago, Houston awoke to a colder-than-usual day. … I told my co-workers it was blackberry winter — as opposed to Indian summer, which comes in the fall. … I’m sure I heard this term as a kid playing with my country cousins in Alabama. My co-workers say I’m nuts.”
Meanwhile, up along the New England coast, a buckie fly is a small stinging fly otherwise known as black fly. It’s called a buckie fly because it emerges in spring at the spawning season of a herring known as a buckeye.
In Texas, a bird’s nest on the ground is something that is good luck or easy pickings, as in this remark in an Austin newspaper in 1967: “Three birdnests on the ground, as they say when the same man owns the land and mineral rights and the operating and production of the wells.”
And we learn that both astern of the lighter and behind the lighthouse mean falling behind, at least in the Northeast. DARE explains that lighter in this sense is a barge; being astern of it would mean missing one’s ship. And lighthouse could have been a misunderstanding and reinterpretation of lighter.
Finally, are you by chance a black-bumper? You can look it up in this update of DARE. Here’s a hint: You might hear that term in southeastern Pennsylvania.