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New dictionary details regional words, phrases

"That jook, a real scaper that one, took the bonnet walker out back by the strand." If that means nothing to you, you probably weren't born in Florida, or at least weren't living here in 1965. That's when crews of graduate students from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, began combing the state and the nation, dragging unwieldy tape recorders and scribbling local words and phrases to include in the Dictionary of American Regional English. The weighty tome, a multi-volume work four decades in the making and with more than 60,000 entries culled from 2.3 million responses, finally has been completed.
(And how else could you learn that "That piano player, a rascal, took a type of Florida bird out back by the stacked cord of wood?") The closest to Tampa the students ventured was Bartow; with the exception of Miami, all the cities visited in Florida were fairly small at the time, chosen in order to root out true colloquialisms. "Florida was a much more Southern state then," says chief editor Joan Houston Hall. The influx of retirees from the North and Northeast had yet to begin when the field workers gathered data. "All our informants were natives of their communities, and usually their parents were, also." The students often interviewed older people to learn what words their grandparents used. Historians also pored over newspapers, novels, diaries, letters and other written sources. Take the mango. In Florida, we all know it as the sweet-tasting, yellow- to orange-colored fruit. But in other parts of the country years ago, a mango was a hot green pepper, often stuffed. In Texas and Louisiana, hungry people eat poor boys, which are grinders in New England, Dagwoods in Colorado, heroes or wedges in New York and subs or Cubans here. Your grandparents might have called it an outhouse, but throughout the country, the little room out back also was known as a biffy, a chic sale, the garden house, the Johnny house or, inexplicably, Mrs. Jones. Scholars and word fiends call the dictionary an invaluable resource. The volumes already in release have been referenced in books and articles about racial and political identity, labor history, human sexuality and even cursing. Curtis Miner, chief curator at The State Museum of Pennsylvania, used the dictionary to help create an interactive map showing speech patterns across the state, including where residents stop saying "soda" and start saying "pop." (In the South, particularly in Texas, a soft drink is known as a Coke, even if you're really hankering for a Dr Pepper or Pepsi.) "DARE is helpful for discerning these cultural fault lines," Miner says. "It's the only work of its kind that is as comprehensive and exhaustive, because it builds on research that they've been accumulating for decades." Novelists and actors have used the dictionary to create authentic characters, and police have used it to identify suspects. Forensic linguist Roger Shuy cracked open the dictionary in the 1990s to create a fairly accurate profile of Ted Kaczynski from the Unabomber's writings. "It raises awareness of the distinctive communities we have throughout the country. It's easy to look at Americans and say that on the whole, Americans pretty much talk alike, which is true on a very broad level," says Allan Metcalf, executive secretary of the American Dialect Society. "These are the interesting details that make us distinctive." Frederic Cassidy, a University of Wisconsin English professor, started work on DARE about 50 years ago. The first volume was finished in 1985. Cassidy died in 2000, with the fourth and fifth volumes unfinished. His tombstone reads, "On to Z!" August Rubrecht was a graduate student studying medieval literature and historical linguistics when Cassidy hired him as a fieldworker. Now he's a 70-year-old retired English professor. "Everybody thought they could get it done quicker," Rubrecht says. "But it's the nature of dictionary work. It's so meticulous." Researchers thought the fifth volume, which starts with "slab" and ends with "zydeco," would be done in 2010. But publication was delayed as funding dried up and new Internet tools increased the amount of work. The release of the final volume is "a huge relief," Hall says. A supplementary sixth volume with an index, maps, and questions and answers from the original field work is in progress. The dictionary team expects to launch an online edition in September 2013, and there's a new website that allows visitors to track some words based on state. A Twitter page offers a DARE word of the day. When Cassidy hired Hall in 1975, he said, "'Don't expect this to be a full-time job. We'll be done in a few years,'" she recalls. "Well, it has been a lot more complex than that." To learn more, go to http://dare.news.wisc.edu/. The John F. Germany Public Library, 900 N. Ashley Drive, Tampa, has copies of the first four volumes.

dkoehn@tampatrib.com (813) 259-8264 Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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