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Wednesday, January 8, 2014 articles (index)
South Carolina speech & American regional English

Our national columnist, Dr. Robert H. Moore

South Carolina speech & American regional English

Robert H. Moore with DARE's Chief Editor, Joan Hall, at a recent Board meeting in Washington. Photo by George E. Hall.

Robert H. Moore with DARE’s Chief Editor, Joan Hall, at a recent Board meeting in Washington. Photo by George E. Hall.

By Robert H. Moore

Contrary to the common notion that mass media has homogenized American speech, regional words and phrases are alive and thriving. This is amply demonstrated by the monumental scholarly project that has given us “The Dictionary of American Regional English” (DARE).

As Christine Bulson noted in her “Booklist” review of DARE, although “language does change and some regionalisms disappear, there are still thousands in existence, and new regionalisms are always surfacing.”

Depending on where you were reared or currently live in America, you might call your grandparents mee-maw and pap-paw, or nana and pops. In Wisconsin a drinking fountain may be called a bubbler, while a potluck dinner may be a pitch-in in Indiana or a scramble in Northern Illinois.

DARE captures these expressions and more than 60,000 others in a landmark achievement of modern American scholarship. Harvard University Press published DARE’s first volume in 1985 and the final volume in early 2013. After publishing six print volumes, Harvard released a digital edition in December 2013 and plans are underway to update it in the years ahead.

Interest in DARE has been driven, in part, by the sheer pleasure of everyday readers. They enjoy learning that when someone out West is moving in great haste, he may be described as going hell-for-leather, or if a Southerner is invited to a rip-roaring party, she could be headed for a hog-killing time.

If Southerners call an elected official a snollygoster, they are referring to a self-promoting politician. In Utah, you warn your teenagers that there will be penalties if they slough (play hookey). If you are traveling in the Gulf region and are told to get ready for a toad-strangler, be on the lookout for a sudden, heavy rainstorm.

Harvard’s publication of digital DARE represents a 50-year effort that began at the University of Wisconsin in Madison under the legendary lexicographer Frederic Cassidy. Since 2000, the project has been under the direction of Emory University Ph.D. Joan Houston Hall.

The Cassidy/Hall achievement has been celebrated on national radio, TV and in feature stories in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine and scores of other publications. The range of frequent DARE users includes an eclectic mix of teachers, students and librarians as well as forensic linguists, law enforcement officers, physicians and Hollywood dialect coaches.

As a special treat for our readers, we asked DARE chief editor Joan Hall to select words and phrases that might resonate with South Carolinians. Dr. Hall cautions that words aren’t confined to state lines. Her selections are frequently found within South Carolina but are often used in neighboring states.

Dr. Hall’s instructive and entertaining commentary follows:

Food names have a remarkable capacity to evoke poignant memories of home. Many South Carolinians doubtless celebrated New Year’s Day with a meal of hopping John, the traditional mixture of black-eyed peas, rice, and side meat thought to bring good luck for the coming year. They might, on the other hand, have served chicken or shrimp pilau (often pronounced perloo, especially in the Low Country).

Breakfast might have consisted of batters (short for batter cakes), known widely throughout the U.S. as flapjacks, slapjacks, and hot cakes, and regionally as griddle cakes (chiefly in the Northeast), wheat cakes (especially in the North Central states, Pennsylvania, and New York), and flannel cakes (mainly in Appalachia).

Years ago, they might have washed a meal down with a dope, though that nicely regional South Carolina term for a soft drink isn’t heard much anymore. The tonic of Massachusetts, the sody water of Texas, and the infrequent but colorful bellywash have similarly fallen out of use, with their speakers joining sides in the ongoing battle between soda and pop (or opting for the generic use of coke).

When dope was purchased at the corner store, it probably cost only a few brownies. That chiefly South Carolina term for a one cent coin contrasted with copper (which was widespread, but less frequent in the West), Indian head, and Lincoln (head) (which were infrequent). If a local South Carolina merchant showed his appreciation for your purchase, he might put in a little something extra for broadus. In other parts of the country that would be called lagniappe (Louisiana and Mississippi), pilon (Texas), or something to boot (scattered throughout the U.S.).

If a sudden rainstorm pummels the ground, South Carolinians might well describe it as a trash mover. Their Georgia neighbors are more likely to call it a lightwood-knot floater (often pronouncing it lighterd-knot). Residents of the Gulf States and the Lower Mississippi Valley, on the other hand, are more likely to see it as a toad (or frog)-strangler, while those in the North Central states view it as a goose (or duck)-drownder.

To take refuge from the storm, parents might gather up their children (even the tee-niny ones) and take them to a picture show, where the young’uns would vote to sit in the buzzard’s roost. Their Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi cousins would also call the balcony the buzzard’s roost, but their friends in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Ohio would know it as peanut heaven.

For those who want to learn more about the work of Dr. Hall and her colleagues, copies of DARE are available from booksellers and in university, college and city libraries. The digital edition should be available through libraries across the country in 2014. For an individual access subscription, see www.daredictionary.com

To learn more about DARE, go to www.dare.wisc.edu and read the “About DARE” section, check out 100 sample entries and hear audio examples of speakers from different parts of the country.

Dr. Robert H. Moore, The Beaufort Tribune’s national columnist, is a graduate of Davidson College, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and holds a Ph. D. from the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He has been associated with the DARE project since his graduate student days at UW and is a Founding Member of DARE’s Board of Visitors. For more information on his association with the Dictionary, please Google – Frederic Cassidy Robert Moore.

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