Know Your Collywobbles from Your Mulligrubs with the Dictionary of American Regional English

Many American English speakers know that people say pop in Chicago, soda in Philadelphia, and coke in New Orleans, and that they all refer to a carbonated, flavored, and sweetened soft drink. But most of us don’t know that a blue norther is a cold wind in Texas or a pogonip is a dense, icy fog in Nevada. Where would one even look up obscure regionalisms? Only in the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE).

In 2013, language lovers celebrated the publication of the sixth and final volume of the DARE, along with the debut of the complete body of work online. For some perspective, the first volume, encompassing letters A–C, came out in 1985. The journal American Speech called DARE “the greatest achievement in American lexicography in the past 50 years.”

What is DARE?

DARE is a dictionary unlike others because it provides a thorough, candid view into unique regional expressions. This dictionary, which so delights and excites language experts, grew from goals set by the charter members of the American Dialect Society back in 1889. England had a regional dictionary—the English Dialect Dictionary—and the United States needed one too. The gestation period of DARE lasted for many years. Between 1890 and 1939, the American Dialect Society published several installments of Dialect Notes, which catalogued regionalisms heard by professors as they traveled around the United States. It was not until the 1960s that the large-scale research for DARE kicked off at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Over six years, fieldworkers interviewed 2,777 people representing 1,002 communities across the US, using a questionnaire that covered 1,600 questions; 1,843 interviewees even agreed to be recorded reading a story containing token pronunciation variants, and then talking about a topic of their choice. These questionnaires and recordings make up part of the data that lexicographers worked into DARE’s 60,000 entries.

A wonderful lexicographical rabbit hole

Exploring DARE is a true delight. It’s full of surprises for English speakers and using the Advance Search feature can take users down an endless path of word discovery. In searching for the word “imaginary” in definition texts, I learned the term mulligrubs. This, I now am proud to know, is “an imaginary ailment” in the South (DARE also recommends I consult the related entry collywobbles). The entry for mulligrubs links to the original survey question, which prompted informants to supply “Joking names that people make up for imaginary diseases: ‘He must have the _____.’” A link to the survey shows an interactive map of all the answers to this question, along with downloadable raw demographic data from the questionnaire. This map is amazing; I toggled various answers to this question over the map like epizooticsheebie-jeebiescrud, and can’t-help-its.


A screenshot of survey question BB28 with interactive map

What are some of DARE’s uses?

Users find themselves consulting DARE’s entries for a wide range of purposes: doctors in rural communities use it to better understand their patients; natural scientists can correlate regional folk names to plants and animals; actors and dialect coaches can listen to clips of the recordings collected by the fieldworkers to re-create accurate regional accents; writers of historical novels can find colorful and historically correct dialect to add to their work. Any local historian, archivist, or language enthusiast will find a wealth of information within DARE’s recordings, survey data, citations, and maps.

Be a part of DARE

DARE is not your typical dictionary. It’s a relic of American regional vocabulary—a celebration of words often ruled too obscure for inclusion in traditional dictionaries. The lexicographers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have created an admirable record of the everyday varieties of English spoken throughout the United States, and their work, led by Chief Editor Joan Houston Hall, is ongoing. The announcement of DARE’s online edition was quickly followed by an appeal to Wisconsinites to take the official DARE survey (with calls to other regions to follow). The ease of online data collection will, no doubt, strengthen this already invaluable work of scholarship.

Subscriptions to the digital version of DARE are available for individuals and for larger institutions. If your local library doesn’t already have a subscription, request that they get one. How would you use this resource? What’s the first thing you would look up? What are some of your favorite regionalisms?

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