[lg policy] Requiem for a Dictionary? or Life Support?
haroldfs at gmail.com
Mon Apr 6 15:29:20 UTC 2015
Requiem for a Dictionary? or Life Support?
A forensic linguist once used *DARE* to find a kidnapper, whose ransom note
read “leave the money on the devil strip,” a term used in northern Ohio.
Image courtesy *DARE* archives.
Since the 19th century, one of the grandest of scholarly projects in the
humanities has been the making of historical dictionaries. These are
comprehensive multivolume dictionaries that aim to cover a language in
all its historical depth and contemporary breadth. The best known of
these is the *Oxford English Dictionary*, begun in 1857*, *published in
installments from 1884 to 1933, and when completed amounting to 13 massive
That first edition of the *OED* neglected the English spoken outside of the
British Isles, so to fill a particular portion of that gap, the University
of Chicago Press sponsored a four-volume *Dictionary of American English on
Historical Principles *in four volumes, begun in 1925 and published between
1936 and 1944.
And this brings us to the greatest American lexicographical project of the
latter 20th century, the *Dictionary of American Regional English
its predecessors, it took many years to write and publish. Work began in
1963. Volume I, edited by Frederic G. Cassidy, an English professor at the
University of Wisconsin at Madison, was published in 1985. The last of the
six volumes of words from all corners America, edited by Joan H. Hall, was
published in 2013. (Full disclosure: I am executive secretary of the
American Dialect Society, the longtime sponsor of *DARE*.)
The uniqueness of *DARE* is evident in a comparison Hall recently made
between *DARE* and a standard wordlist known as WordNet
<https://wordnet.princeton.edu/>. Of 75,135 headwords in *DARE,* she
reported, 61,359 are not found in WordNet.
In the past, when the last of the massive volumes saw print, the project
would be finished, the office closed, and the staff dispersed to whatever
future callings. The dictionary, with suitable honors and awards, would
rest in peace in reference libraries for the benefit of future scholars.
But this is the 21st century. And in this digital age, reference works are
not just entombed; they have the possibility of eternal life, or at least
continuing life, not weighing down a researcher’s shelves but existing
weightless in the cloud, available with a touch of a keyboard and a click
of a mouse.
It’s not just the weightlessness that makes the electronic version so
convenient. It allows sophisticated searching and correlation of the
entries and the information associated with them.
All this is well known. The virtues and features of *DARE
<http://dare.wisc.edu/>,* including its electronic version
<http://www.daredictionary.com/>, have been celebrated
<http://chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/2013/12/13/air-dare/> in Lingua
Franca before. What is new is making public the news that, for lack of
funds, the updating of *DARE* may come to an end in the next few months.
The *Milwaukee Journal Sentinel* raised the warning last week in a
by Mark Johnson with the pointed headline, “”UW out of money for
This monumental work of scholarship has required monumental amounts of
money, and the money is about to dwindle to a trickle. What supports a few
staff members now will allow for only one part-time person in the coming
Unless everyone helps out. So here is a blatant request for support: You
can click on “Make a Gift” <http://dare.wisc.edu/contact/donate> at the
Or, to do it the 21st century way, try crowdsourcing here
<http://www.gofundme.com/qjfsgs> (where you’ll also find out what *DARE*
and the Wisconsin forward Nigel Hayes have in common).
I DARE you.
And by the way, go Badgers!
Harold F. Schiffman
Professor Emeritus of
Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305
Phone: (215) 898-7475
Fax: (215) 573-2138
Email: haroldfs at gmail.com
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