Humanities & Culture

A Labor of Love {for Words}

From A to Z, the Dictionary of American Regional English reaches its goal.

Find regional origins for the words featured in our print magazine, as well as maps showing the geographic regions of the United States used by DARE.

When you’re far from home, the way people talk is one of the first signs that you’re not in Kansas — or Wisconsin — anymore.

Several years ago, when I was living in Little Rock, Arkansas, it didn’t take long for Midwestern me to hear words and phrases unique to the heart of Dixie. During my first trip to the grocery store, the cashier smiled, handed over my receipt, and said what sounded like, “Appreciate ya!” I eventually learned that he meant “thank you.”

“We think of American English as being pretty homogeneous, but with our spoken language, there are still thousands of differences,” says Joan Houston Hall, chief editor for the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) at UW–Madison.

For five decades, the DARE project has been documenting and celebrating the way we speak, and patiently working its way through the alphabet. In March 2012, the project reached a milestone that, during the early days, may have seemed out of reach: the twenty-sixth letter.

From 1965 to 1970, the UW had dispatched researchers to more than one thousand communities, where they conducted interviews with the locals and documented what words they used. After the fieldwork was done, editors in Madison used the collected responses to build DARE, volume by heavy volume. Hall took over as editor after the death of project founder Frederic G. Cassidy in 2000. In keeping with Cassidy’s mantra — “On to Z!” — DARE reached its goal, publishing a fifth volume that covers Sl to Z.

But it’s not over yet: a sixth volume, which will include sets of maps showing how synonyms are distributed across the country, is in progress, with publication planned for early next year. The following pages offer a sneak preview of some of that volume’s content.

In the future, DARE may conduct follow-up research, revisiting communities from the original survey.

And the dictionary will be released in electronic form next year, making it even more addictive to word lovers. Open the more-than-one-thousand-page fifth volume, and each entry leads you to look up another. Pretty soon, you’ll be figuring out ways to incorporate whoopensocker* into daily conversation.

*something extraordinary of its kind

DARE Synonyms

See also: maps showing the geographic regions referenced in the word lists below.

Design by Earl Madden. Image by Ben Sanders/Getty.

a heavy rain
chunk-floater [chiefly South, South Midland]
fence lifter [Ozarks, central western Tennessee]
goose-drownder [chiefly Midland]
gully washer [widespread except New England, less frequently Inland North, Pacific]
pour-down [scattered]
stump mover [South, South Midland]
toad-strangler [chiefly Gulf States, South Midland]
trash mover [chiefly Mid and South Atlantic, Lower Mississippi Valley]

an outhouse
Aunt Jane’s room [chiefly North, North Midland]
biffy [chiefly Upper Midwest and Wisconsin]
chic sale [scattered, but chiefly Northeast, North Midland, West]
F.D.R. [West Virginia]
First National Bank: [no location, reported by single informant in Oregon]
garden house [chiefly Mid Atlantic]
johnny house [chiefly South, South Midland, especially Mid and South Atlantic]
King Tut’s tomb [no location, reported by single informant in New York]
little house [scattered]
Mrs. Jones [scattered]
reading room [scattered but especially North, North Midland]

antigodlin [chiefly South, South Midland, West]
catabias [chiefly Midland, especially South Midland]
catawampus [widely scattered except Northeast]
cockeyed [scattered, but chiefly Northeast]
galley-west [chiefly North]
gee-hawed [especially Inland North]
one-sided [chiefly South, South Midland]
skee-wampus [scattered, but especially frequently West]
skew-gee [chiefly North, California]
sky west and crooked [chiefly South, South Midland, West]
squawed [especially South Midland]

a dragonfly
devil’s darning needle [scattered, but chiefly North]
devil’s horse [chiefly South, South Midland, Texas]
ear sewer [scattered]
eye stitcher [Wisconsin]
globe-skimmer [Hawaii]
mosquito hawk [chiefly South, but scattered Mississippi Valley]
snake doctor [chiefly Midland, South]
snake feeder [chiefly Midland, Plains States]
witch doctor [especially South Midland]

kinds of pastries
bear claw [chiefly West, especially Pacific]
bismarck [chiefly Upper Midwest, western Great Lakes]
bun [especially Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey]
Chicago [Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota]
cruller [scattered, but chiefly Northeast, North Central, Central Atlantic]
doughnut hole [scattered, but less frequently South, South Midland]
fastnacht [chiefly Pennsylvania]
friedcake [chiefly North, especially Great Lakes, Upstate New York]
long john [scattered, but chiefly Upper Mississippi Valley, Upper Midwest, Plains States, Michigan]
maple bar [West]
paczki [in Polish settlement areas, especially Michigan, Wisconsin]

a stream
arroyo [chiefly Southwest]
bayou [especially South, Midland]
branch [chiefly South, South Midland]
brook [origin chiefly New England, now widespread but especially common Northeast]
coulee [scattered, but especially Louisiana]
creek [widespread except in New England]
crick [especially Inland North, North Midland, West]
run [scattered, but chiefly western Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland]

worms used for bait
angleworm [chiefly North and West]
baitworm [chiefly Midland, South]
bloodworm [chiefly Central and Mid Atlantic]
dew worm [chiefly Great Lakes]
eelworm [chiefly Atlantic]
fishworm [widespread, but more frequently North, North Midland, Central]
Georgia wiggler [chiefly South Atlantic]
grubworm [widespread except Northeast, Pacific]
night walker [chiefly Northeast]
red wiggler [chiefly Southeast]

a belly-flop (in diving)
back-buster [South, Midland]
belly-bumper [chiefly south New England, Pennsylvania]
belly-buster [chiefly South, West Midland, Central]
belly-flop [chiefly North, North Midland, West]
belly-smacker [chiefly east Great Lakes]
belly-whopper [scattered, but especially New York, Central Atlantic]
bullfrog [Ohio]
flatbelly [[no location, reported by single informant in Indiana]
pancake [no location, reported by informants in New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington]

Jenny Price is senior writer for On Wisconsin.

Published in the Summer 2012 issue


  • allan d orman June 8, 2012

    Great stuff. Like “speak minnesota” Is there a “speak Wisconsin? I lived in Madison for five years and it seemed there was a difference from the minnesota speech right next door. Even between Madison and Milwaukee.

    I once read that Ohio speech was the closest to “American” in the US. Anything to that?

  • Daniel P. Giesy (Ph. D, '64) June 13, 2012

    Not listed in this article (I hope it made the book) was a central Ohio (I have no idea how much more widespread than that) phrase for earthworms — “night crawlers.”

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