• Image about Frederic Cassidy
David Vander Meulen began working on the DARE project in 1978, when he was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Jack Looney

“You can travel to airports in Austin, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles or New York, and what you hear on the television is likely to be the same everywhere,” she says. “In order to hear these wonderful words that nobody is going to say on television, you need to get out and meet people, share a meal with them, meet their families. Then you’ll hear them call their grandmother ‘MeeMaw’ or ‘Big Momma’ — the kinds of words that we use casually and unself-consciously and usually assume are used by everyone else.”

The idea for such a dictionary originally blossomed in the late 19th century when the American Dialect Society was founded, but it wasn’t until 1962, when Cassidy agreed to spearhead the venture, that formal work began. In 1965, Cassidy sent 80 field workers across the country with a document listing 1,847 questions, such as “What do you call the meal that people eat around the middle of the day?” and “What do you call the shelf over the fireplace?” They visited every state in the nation, stopping in crowded cities and rural outposts, asking how people referred to time and weather, emotions and social arrangements, the structures of the home or the process of farming. In all, they visited 1,002 communities and spoke with 2,777 people.

Field workers continued their interviews until 1970. What resulted was an astounding 2.5 million answers for the DARE editors to work through. It took 15 years for the first volume, containing the letters “A” through “C,” to be published, in 1985. Subsequent volumes appeared in 1991 (“D”-“H”), 1996 (“I”– “O”), 2002 (“P”–“Sk”) and 2012 (“Sl”–“Z”).

In order to give the words historical and geographical context, DARE editors painstakingly researched and collected print references for each entry. These references, dating from the 1700s to each volume’s respective present day, were found in everything from newspapers and government documents to plays and personal diaries. The volumes also include nearly 3,000 maps that show where certain words were collected by DARE’s tireless field workers.

David Vander Meulen began working on the project in 1978, when he was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Upon graduating, he became a full-time editor, combing the stacks of the school’s rare-book room and perusing the historical society’s research materials to find and record these occurrences.

“Work on DARE was always interesting, and it certainly led to encounters with delightful books,” says Vander Meulen, who worked on the project until 1983 and is now a professor of English at the University of Virginia. “Some I came across accidentally, such as a Bible belonging to Abraham Lincoln; others were actually the targets of searches. Sometimes the fascination came from problems in more ordinary books — why some copies of Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt say ‘I tipped my benny,’ for example, and others read ‘I tipped my kelly.’ ” (Both phrases mean to tip one’s hat.)