ARTS & CULTURE

An American Dialect Dictionary Is Dying Out. Here Are Some Of Its Best Words.

From twistification to storm caves to slushburgers, the U.S. has quite the history of local language quirks.

08/18/2017 08:39 EDT | Updated 08/29/2017 18:52 EDT
HUFFPOST/ISABELLA CARAPELLA
Source: Dictionary of American Regional English

Bizmaroon, doodinkus and splo. 

For over 50 years, a group of intrepid lexicographers have been documenting words like these ― regional terms and phrases that were once popular in states like Wisconsin, Kansas and Tennessee. Collected together in the Dictionary of American Regional English, the words make up a fascinating repository for old-fashioned, funny-sounding and unmistakably local language quirks across the United States.

But the six-volume compendium might soon be coming to an end.

DARE began with a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor named Frederic Cassidy. In 1962, he became chief editor of a project dedicated to American dialects, and from 1965 to 1970, he oversaw a team of 80 fieldworkers who traveled the country surveying thousands of English speakers and the regional sayings they held dear. From 1970 until 2013, experts in Madison used the massive amounts of survey data gathered to create an impressive, 60,000-entry dictionary now run by people like longtime DARE editors Joan Hall and George Goebel. Existing in both physical and digital form, the dictionary logs words including bluebird weather (in Maryland, it means a brief period of warm weather in autumn) and slushburger (to South Dakotans, a sloppy joe), as well as phrases like “I hope to my die” (used to make a strong assertion in Kentucky) and “inso” (a contraction meaning “Isn’t that so? Don’t you agree?” in Wisconsin). 

While non-regional slang words spread like wildfire across the internet now, DARE is a lovely reminder that colloquialisms were once ― and still are, in some cases ― bound to the people and places of localized areas. Even if we’ve long forgotten that bizmaroon is a term for a bullfrog, doodinkus means gadget and splo is a stand-in for liquor, they remain a part of our country’s rich oral history. One of the dictionary’s primary functions today is, according to Hall, to combat the idea that language has been “homogenized” by present-day media and a hyperconnected population, and preserve the dialect that sets us all apart along the way.

HuffPost

“Language is changing, no doubt about that,” Hall, who’s been with DARE since the 1970s, told HuffPost, “but it doesn’t mean it’s becoming homogenized. If you think about the parts of your vocabulary that have to do with your family and friends and your community ― that have nothing to do with school or newspapers or standardized forms of communication ― you realize a lot of these words are not going to change because they are part and parcel of our human lives.”

And Hall’s not alone in her thinking. Bert Vaux, one of the linguistic professors behind a viral New York Times quiz adapted from the Harvard Dialect Survey he developed, claims that while it might be true that “traditional features of non-standard dialects are dying out, regional differences in vocabulary and pronunciation remain alive and well, and may even be increasing.” He cited the many, many enduring synonyms for “doodlebug,” a term he and other Houston-area natives use to refer to what others call a pill bug, roly poly, sow bug, potato bug, armadillo bug, slater, woody wig or monkey pea as evidence. Hall similarly offers the word “budge,” a relatively new Wisconsin term used in schools to denote cutting or butting in line, as in: “No budging, I was here first!”

Unfortunately, there are few resources other than DARE and projects like Vaux’s Cambridge Online Survey of World Englishes that are taking the time to not only track new regionalisms across the U.S., but safeguard the local words and phrases whose usage is dwindling ― from Gullah words on the southern coasts to Mormon and Amish sayings in the heartland to Spanish-infused speech in the American Southwest. Due to lack of funding, Hall says that DARE will be winding down its services by the end of the year. Any future funding ― be it from federal agencies like the National Endowment for the Humanities or private foundations like the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation ― will be used to continue to update the digital version of DARE, but the organization will cease plans to continue its fieldwork and in-person research. 

What will be lost if DARE discontinues its research? “We’d be losing an excellent resource for discovering things about our past,” Hall, who’s been technically retired for two years, said. “It’s a hugely important resource for history of the language in this country. It’s also very important for discovering differences among ethnic cultures. We have an index where you can look up Norwegian or Swedish or Spanish or French and find all the entries that say something about that in their etymologies, or you can look and see which entries were used primarily by rural people as opposed to urban, or well-educated as opposed to poorly educated, men and women. These are things that other resources don’t tell you about.”

Vaux agrees that nuanced data like that provided by DARE “can play significant roles in combating prejudices by making the general public aware of the sorts of variations that exist in our language and the fact that they typically result not from differences in intelligence or sophistication, but often are simply regional differences.”

Language is changing, no doubt about that, but it doesn’t mean it’s becoming homogenized. Joan Hall

For West Virginia–based writer Scott McClanahan, author of Crapalachia and The Sarah Book, a focus on dialect differences is certainly complex. “It’s easier to take a people’s natural [and] mineral resources as a society if you think they talk funny,” he explained. “It’s easier to stereotype and exploit a people who are seen as uneducated because they pronounce the word ‘pin’ the same as the word ‘pen.’”

McClanahan, whose books explore the people and things that make rural Appalachia tick, says his children won’t sound the way he sounds or use the words he uses, and he doesn’t think they should. “The way their great-grandparents sounded or the words they used would probably be shocking to their ears,” he said. “But inside of all our words are these secret little histories about war and famine and immigration and jobs our ancestors had.”

At the end of the day, Vaux believes that regionalism will persist “as long as it is important for humans to identify in-group and out-group status,” he concluded. “I don’t think that language as a whole will homogenize.”

Hall doesn’t think it will either, though she’s not relying on blind hope. “As an editor of DARE, I regret that many words seem to be on their way out, because they are interesting, appropriate and reflective of their regions,” she said. “But I also recognize that language change is inevitable, and nothing DARE or anyone else can do will keep them alive if they no longer serve their purpose.”

For more information on DARE’s recent efforts ― such as its digitization of more than 1,800 recordings of regional pronunciation ― you can visit the dictionary’s website. In the meantime, here are 50 words and phrases plucked straight from DARE’s catalogue that define the wonder of American Regional English:

Alabama

twistification (noun): a dance or quasi-dance with partners in facing columns; a party at which this and similar dances are danced

Alaska 

sno-go (noun, verb): a snowmobile; to travel or transport by snowmobile

Arizona 

Hualapai tiger (noun): a medium to large-sized, usually black predatory bug of the family Reduviidae, also called an assassin bug

Arkansas 

rusty lizard (noun): a fence lizard

California 

dingy (adjective): foolish, silly, crazy

Colorado 

dagwood (noun): a large sandwich, layered with various ingredients

Connecticut 

glawackus (noun): an imaginary monster

Delaware

mung you (pronoun): you all

Florida 

scaper (noun): a rascal; a critter, varmint

Georgia 

jook (noun): a hidden or sheltered place; an isolated stand of trees

Hawaii 

nani (adjective): beautiful

Idaho 

whistle pig (noun): a marmot, especially the woodchuck; a ground squirrel; a prairie dog

Illinois

bube (noun): a boy; a baby

Indiana 

pully bone (noun): wishbone

Iowa 

storm cave (noun): cellar

Kansas 

doodinkus (noun): something whose name is unknown or forgotten; a gadget

Kentucky 

dry-land fish (noun): an edible mushroom, usually a morel

Louisiana 

king cake (noun): a party cake, usually made for Mardi Gras season, containing an object used to determine the “king” or host of a succeeding party

Maine

tunklehead (noun): a fool

Maryland 

papershell (noun): a molted crab whose shell is just beginning to harden

Massachusetts

hosey (verb): to stake a claim or reserve a right to (something); to choose; the claim so made

Michigan 

ya hey (interjection): used variously as an affirmation, greeting or attention-getter

Minnesota 

ishy (adjective): icky

Mississippi 

crab-apple switch (noun): a large pocket knife

Missouri 

eversharp (noun): any mechanical pencil

Montana

lamb licker (noun): a sheepherder or lamber

Nebraska 

waddy (noun): a cowboy, ranch hand

Nevada 

cow country (noun): a rural place, “the sticks”

New Hampshire 

baster (noun): an extraordinarily large or vigorous example of its kind; used as a mildly derogatory or affectionate term for a person or animal

New Jersey 

Jersey devil (noun): an imaginary monster; a hobgoblin

New Mexico 

majordomo (noun): the overseer of a ranch or mission; a person in charge of a group or project

New York 

gooney (noun): a stupid, awkward person

North Carolina 

gee-haw whimmeydiddle (noun): folk toy

North Dakota 

hot dish (noun): a casserole or main dish

Ohio 

devil’s strip (noun): the strip of grass and trees between the sidewalk and the curb

Oklahoma 

turd-floater (noun): a heavy rain

Oregon 

thunder egg (noun): a geode

Pennsylvania

grinnie (noun): chipmunk or ground squirrel

Rhode Island 

stuffie (noun): a clamshell (especially that of a quahog) filled with a mixture of chopped clams and other ingredients and baked

South Carolina 

sand chicken (noun): a small shore bird

South Dakota 

slushburger (noun): a sloppy joe

Tennessee 

oodlins (noun): a great quantity

Texas 

Juneteenth (noun): June 19th, celebrated as the anniversary of the emancipation of slaves in Texas on that date in 1865

Utah 

snowdrop (noun): a wood anemone (here: Anemone quinquefolia) or the closely related rue anemone

Vermont 

leaf peeper (noun): a tourist who comes to view autumn foliage

Virginia 

flosh (verb): to spill, splash; to cause to splash up, agitate

Washington 

geoduck (noun): a large edible clam

West Virginia 

slicky slide (noun): a playground slide

Wisconsin 

inso (interrogative, exclamation): Isn’t that so? Don’t you agree?

Wyoming

coulee (noun): a valley or depression between hills

HuffPost is hitting the road on a 23-city tour to hear concerns from across the nation. For more information on the Listen to America tour, read our editor-in-chief’s letter to readers.

Also on HuffPost
11 Untranslatable Words From Other Languages