Sunday, April 7, 2013

Beneath the dignity of a great nation

A little earlier today I allowed myself an indulgence of mock anger about the pleonasm safe haven. But this evening I discover an actual rage building to Category 5 levels. The reason can be found in another post earlier today, that the Dictionary of American Regional English is in danger of going out of business.

We, who used to think of ourselves as a great and puissant nation, find ourselves unable to come up with the ready for the continuation of a long-running academic project that establishes something central about our greatness as a nation: the richness of our language. 

There are locutions in DARE that Mark Twain would have recognized. There is language that I recognize from my people in rural Kentucky. My people come from people who never exercised much in the way of political power or wealth or cultural influence, but who had the right of the humble to add to the fabric of the national language. And it is the Dictionary of American Regional English, through the dedication of generations of volunteers and scholars, that gave them the dignity of recording their contributions.

Now we find that Joan Houston Hall, heir to Fred Cassidy and the other members of the American Dialect Society who started this project, is reduced to begging for small change to keep at least a part of the operation functioning. 

We see every day people wearing American flag lapel pins and prating about their patriotism. A true and sincere patriotism, one that properly understood who we are and where we came from and why it is important to know this, would not allow the lights to go dark at DARE.

The Dictionary of American Regional English needs help

A year ago, the spring was full of promise. The fifth volume of the Dictionary of American Regional English had just come out, the final volume, with index and apparatus, was due in the fall, and plans were in train to put the whole thing online.

But now an appeal from the editor, Joan Houston Hall, has come out, and the whole project is in dire straits. She writes, "We were not awarded federal and private grants we had anticipated  receiving; private gifts have declined precipitously; a major foundation that has provided a large gift annually for twenty years has decided it  must move on to other worthy projects; the UW has endured grave  reductions in state support, and the College of Letters and Science is unable to provide assistance."

As a consequence, the staff of the dictionary is to be given layoff notices, effective July 1. 

This is her appeal: "To let  language mavens and fans of DARE know that if they’d like to help us,  it’s easy to do. The home page of the DARE website  (  has a “Donate” button. It will take readers to a secure University of  Wisconsin Foundation site through which tax-deductible gifts can be given to DARE."

DARE is an ornament to scholarship and learning, an invaluable repository to the vigor and inventiveness and quirkiness and color of our national language. We have the full six volumes, but to lose the digital edition and to forfeit the continuing scholarship of the staff would be a calamity, a loss not easily repaired, if ever. 

So I am repeating Joan Houston Hall's appeal to you, in hopes that you, my readers, lovers of our language, will be moved to do something, however modest, to ensure that "Zydeco is not the end."