Monday, September 28, 2009

Regional Dialect

“Dialect words are those terrible marks of the beast to the truly genteel.” – Thomas Hardy

When I read The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, I learned that putting together a dictionary was no easy task. I recently read about another equally daunting project—Dictionary of American Regional English, also known as DARE.

I thought, aha, this is a book I’d like to own! Well, it’s not a book. DARE is books. And the last volume, S to Z, is not even out yet. According to an article on, “Regional Dictionary Tracks The Funny Things We Say,” the final project will be released next year.

The article went on to say that the man who started the project in the 1950s, linguist Frederic Cassidy, passed away before the end of the project. His tombstone reads, “On to Z!”

Also according to the article, Mr. Cassidy “…sent field workers out across the country in "word wagons" to interview people. Cassidy's catalogers talked to nearly 3,000 people over six years, making recordings along the way in order to capture pronunciations.”

“The DARE also helps capture obscure expressions before they fade away. Stephanie Grayson, the founder of, says in some ways, American language is becoming more uniform, and television and the Internet are giving us all a common vocabulary.

"We're living in a world of 140 characters or less on Twitter," Grayson says.

The article is not only interesting, it's also full of examples, including this one used by President Clinton at a news conference. “He doesn't know me from Adam's off ox." It means he doesn’t know me at all. I've heard of doesn't know me from Adam but never with the off ox added and I've lived in the South.

The use of ‘devil’s strip’ in a ransom note helped capture a kidnapper. Evidently the term is used only in a tiny section of Ohio. It means the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street.

Other terms I’d never heard of and found fascinating were:
mulligrubs (n) A condition of despondency or ill temper; a vague or imaginary unwellness. (Usage: scattered, but especially the South)
nebby (adj) Snoopy, inquisitive. (Usage: chiefly Pennsylvania)
pungle (v) To shell out; to plunk down (money); to pay up. (Usage: chiefly West)
rantum scoot (n) An outing with no definite destination (Usage: scattered)
say-so (n) An ice-cream cone. (Usage: scattered)

By the way, if you are interested in owning the four volumes currently available, you’ll find them on Amazon. Be prepared to pay over $400.00 though.

Do you or your characters use regional dialect? Do you have a favorite word or phrase that you only hear in a certain section of the country?

Thanks for stopping by.

Tags: Thomas Hardy, dialect, DARE, Cassidy, Amazon, Clinton, >, Professor and the Madman, Simon Winchester,


Helen Ginger said...

I'm like you. I've heard "doesn't know me from Adam" but not with the ox part added. Gotta be a Biblical origin since we in the south don't mess with too many oxen. The others you listed are foreign to me. It's hard to say what is a regional thing since to those who use it, it seems normal and something anyone else would know. One that everyone probably associates with the south would be "Bless your pea-pickin' heart."

Straight From Hel

Marvelous Marv said...

I'd think using regional dialect, in order to have the mass appeal necessary for a wide readership, would have to be used sparingly and only those kinds of phrases/words that are well KNOWN to be from a certain area. Otherwise you'd be like - wtf? when reading them. I've used ghetto slang in my books, like "what's up, dog?" and "he's my homey," but there again, peeps who don't talk like that have at least HEARD those phrases and know it's inner city urban talk.

The Old Silly

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I'd heard "doesn't know me from Adam's house-cat" in my part of the South.

I do use regional expressions in my manuscripts. Frequently they're edited out. :) We say "cut on the light" and "buggy" instead of "shopping cart." Editors find these things confusing...
Mystery Writing is Murder

Galen Kindley--Author said...

Dialect has gotten me in big trouble in my current WIP. I have gangster that speak in ethnic dialect. My editor said, “Too much. Took me right out of the story. Had to go back and reread to figure out what the heck you we’re talking about.” So, now, I gotta figure out how to get that done. That equals, lots of revision and rewrite. Ugh.

Best Regards, Galen

Imagineering Fiction Blog

Carol Kilgore said...

Like Marvelous Marv, I try to use dialect that most people have heard of or that is clear enough in context. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. I once had a character talk about throwing a hissy fit, something most people in the South, anyway, have heard of.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Good point, Helen, in saying that it's hard know what is a regional thing since to those who use it, it seems normal. I've always liked pea-pickin' heart.

True, Marvin. I've read books with a lot of slang and skipped over parts of the dialogue that made no sense to me.

Cut the light is a new one for me, Elizabeth. I like the way it sounds though and it does make sense.

Galen, I think your editor is right. Like I mentioned to Marvin, I skip over parts of dialogue when I don't understand what they're saying and I know I mis stuff that way. I think a bit of dialect is okay as long as the reader can easily figure out the meaning.

Carole, I love hissy fit - it's fun to say.

N A Sharpe said...

Very interesting. It's true - words and mannerisms can help define our characters. Trying to keep a genuine feel in the dialogue without cliche or overusage of phrases can absolutely give a regional depth to a character. I have to admit, most of these phrases were new to me though. Interesting thoughts, Jane!

Nancy, from Realms of Thought…

Elspeth Antonelli said...

This is a very interesting post, Jane. My WIP takes place in England about 70 years ago so that brings its own challenges.


Patricia Stoltey said...

I hope I can track down library copies of these books, although I assume they'll be on the reference shelves. A writer could spend hours and hours procrastinating...

Jane's Ride - Novelist Jane Kennedy Sutton's journey through the ups and downs of the writing, publishing and marketing world