Genealogy 101: Using the Dictionary of American Regional English for Genealogy

Introduction: In this article – part of an ongoing “Introduction to Genealogy” series – Gena Philibert-Ortega describes a helpful resource for genealogists, the “Dictionary of American Regional English,” and how it can help with your family history research. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”

I LOVE dictionaries. As a genealogist, how could you not? Dictionaries are not just a resource that you use so that you can spell a specific word or look up a definition. Dictionaries exist for all kinds of subjects – and are good for general learning, as well as specific spelling or definition questions.

I use my food dictionaries when I write about historical recipes. I take a look at one of my slang dictionaries when I want to understand how a word was used by a previous generation. One of my friends owns a dictionary printed in 1920 that he used to look up an ancestral occupation. This was vital to his understanding of that occupation, since the word for that occupation has lost its work-related meaning over time and today is a word that has a distinctly negative connotation.

My love for dictionaries is probably why I was so excited to find the website for DARE. The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) “is a multi-volume reference work that documents words, phrases, and pronunciations that vary from one place to another place across the United States.” (1) The dictionary is “based on face-to-face interviews carried out in all 50 states between 1965 and 1970 and on a comprehensive collection of written materials (diaries, letters, novels, histories, biographies, newspapers, government documents, etc.) that cover our history from the colonial period to the present.” (2)

In a 1965 newspaper article from the Charleston News and Courier, it is explained that the Charleston area was picked for this project “on the basis of their settlement history and/or geographical distribution.” A student working on the project in the Charleston area explained that “Georgetown and Beaufort, like Charleston, have essentially stable populations and therefore, distinct dialects.”

An article about the Dictionary of American Regional English, Charleston News and Courier newspaper article 19 July 1966
Charleston News and Courier (Charleston, South Carolina), 19 July 1966, page 11

The 1960s project involved 1,000 interviews being conducted by graduate students who would go into a community that was representative of that region or state. Frederic G. Cassidy, English professor at the University of Wisconsin, explained the importance of recording regional dialects by providing the example of a young boy who fishes using worms as bait.

“A Wisconsin boy on his way to the fishing hole will stop to dig angleworms. A Rhode Island boy using the same bait will say he’s fishing with easworms. In upstate New York they’re night crawlers, and in western Connecticut, angledogs. They’re all the same worms – but Americans in different parts of the United States have different names for fish bait, just as they do for frying pans, rainstorms and 1,000 other things.”

An article about the Dictionary of American Regional English, Milwaukee Journal newspaper article 5 January 1967
Milwaukee Journal (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), 5 January 1967, page 25

DARE Surveys

The surveys the students used to better understand U.S. regionalisms asked respondents to use words that described items, events, or actions. Categories for these words included:

  • Birds
  • Buying and Selling, Money
  • Children’s Games
  • Clothing, Men’s and Women’s
  • Courtship, Marriage, Childbearing
  • Dishes
  • Domestic Animals
  • Emotional States and Attitudes
  • Entertainments and Celebrations
  • Family Relationships
  • Farming
  • Fishing, Hunting, Wildlife
  • Foods
  • Furniture
  • Health and Disease
  • Houses
  • Insects
  • Parts of the Body
  • Relationships among People
  • Religion and Beliefs
  • Topography
  • Utensils
  • Vehicles and Transportation
  • Weather (3)

So, for example, one of the questions asked was the word used for “The meal that people eat around the middle of the day.” Respondents’ replied with dinner, lunch, luncheon, brunch, noon meal, snack, noon lunch, and Sunday dinner, to just name a few. (4) When asked to answer what word is used for “A woman whose husband is dead” answers ranged from widow, to sod or grass widow, to graveyard widow. (5)

What’s This Have to Do with Genealogy?

As I look over those survey questions and answers from the 1960s, it’s obvious that even in the United States we don’t all speak English in the same way. Language is influenced by region, ethnic background, slang from a specific time period, and more. Because the interviewers sought to record people of various ages, we get a sense of words that were used generations before the 1960s. These words represent what our families have used to refer to items, relationships, and events.

This can help us as we interpret and understand family stories, family letters and correspondence, newspaper articles, and some records. DARE has even shown the connection between words and our family history with a World Tree display at the Ellis Island Museum. (6)

Check out the Dictionary of American Regional English on the University of Wisconsin-Madison website. You can also subscribe to the online DARE Dictionary. The University of Wisconsin-Madison website also includes maps and reminiscences from fieldworkers. Clicking on the link for Words and then Quarterly Updates provides a fascinating look at how some words have changed over time, such as this entry for Baptist Cake that spans 1888 to 1956.

Want to learn more about what genealogy is and how can you better understand your ancestor’s life? Dictionaries are an important tool for genealogists. To learn more see my previous article How to Use a Dictionary to Help with Your Genealogy.

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(1) “What is DARE?,” Dictionary of American Regional English (https://dare.wisc.edu/about/what-is-dare/: accessed 31 December 2019).
(2) Ibid.
(3) “1965-1970,” Dictionary of American Regional English (https://dare.wisc.edu/surveys/survey-results/1965-1970/: accessed 31 December 2019).
(4) “H2,” Dictionary of American Regional English (https://dare.wisc.edu/surveys/survey-results/1965-1970/foods/h2/: accessed 31 December 2019).
(5) “AA25,” Dictionary of American Regional English (https://dare.wisc.edu/surveys/survey-results/1965-1970/courtship-marriage-childbearing/aa25/: accessed 31 December 2019).
(6) “History of DARE,” Dictionary of American Regional English (https://dare.wisc.edu/about/history-of-dare/: accessed 31 December 2019).

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