And though learning the definitions of words such as pinkletinks can be amusing (it’s what people on Martha’s Vineyard call frogs), the value of DARE extends far beyond supplying mere dinner-party conversation. Being able to understand one another despite our varied backgrounds is crucial, and DARE has indeed proved useful for important work done by doctors, law-enforcement officials and the like. Hall recalls the story of Roger Shuy, a Georgetown University professor turned forensic linguist, who was asked to consult on a case regarding an abducted child.

“The ransom note requested $10,000 be put in a diaper bag ‘on the devil strip at the corner of 18th and Carlson,’ ” Hall recounts. “The phrase devil strip is not in the Oxford English Dictionary or in any other [traditional] dictionary — but it is in DARE.” (It refers to the strip of grass between the sidewalk and curb.) The DARE entry established that use of the phrase was limited to a particular area in Ohio, which helped lead investigators to a suspect from Ohio who ultimately confessed to the crime.

Once work concludes on the supplement and digital edition next year, the DARE team isn’t finished; they’re currently exploring ways to track the geographical distribution of the 63,000 accumulated words and to collect new ones as well. “DARE demonstrates that our language still has distinct and delightful regional character,” Hall says. “Whether we are talking about foods, games, clothing, family members, animals or almost any other aspect of life, our vocabulary reveals much about who we are.”

Those who have worked on this 50-year endeavor share a passion for our language and for the beauty of a complex and eclectic American experience — so much so that it’s sometimes hard to stop digging for new words even after they leave the project. Vander Meulen, for instance, took his avocation with him wherever he went.

“My wife and I were camping in New Mexico when a severe storm approached,” he remembers. “I chatted with a park ranger,? hoping to prompt some exotic term like duck-drownder or toad-strangler. Finally, I moved in for the strike and asked, ‘What do you call a heavy rainstorm around here?’ ”

His reply? “ ’Bout an inch.”


Kim Schmidt is a writer in Champaign, Ill., who will happily invite you for a potluck dinner, offer you a pop and let you sit on her couch. If you ask her to take a rantum scoot or put something in the rumpelkammer, she’ll look at you funny.