Looking for Wisconsin's language: Regional English dictionary wants your input

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Catherine W. Idzerda
September 26, 2014

JANESVILLE--In today's headlines:

A local politician is acknowledging the corn after police caught him running down Main Street at bar time in the middle of a toad-strangler.

Joe S'moe, the independent who represents Nowhereinparticular, told officers he was part of a hunting party engaged in tracking down the elbedritsch or perhaps a snipe, he couldn't remember which.

“I think that those guys might have been trying to honeyfuggle me,” S'moe said, swaying gently in the officer's arms. “They kept on telling me what a great hunter I was."

When reached for comment, his wife told this reporter: “He's not the man I married; I wouldn't know him now from Adam's housecat.”

S'moe was released from the county jail after his supporters pungled up the bail.


The news would be so much more interesting if journalists were allowed to use the Dictionary of American Regional English.

“Acknowledging the corn” has more literary richness than “admitted he was stinking drunk.”

“Toad-strangler” describes the length and intensity of a rainfall better than the meager “downpour.” 

And for those who you don't know, a "snipe" and/or "elbedritsch" is an imaginary animal. Rural people have been known to send city slickers on "snipe hunts."

Alas, we can't have everything, but we can help support the mission of the Dictionary of American Regional English by taking part in its online language survey.

The dictionary is inviting Wisconsinites to participate in a survey of everyday language. The survey asks people about the words they use for things such as the time of day, weather, food, clothing, farming, school, religion and other parts of daily life, according to the dictionary's website.

The project is especially interested in finding lifelong residents of communities that the project has visited before in order to consider the change in particular locations over time.

Local communities in that category include Janesville and Jefferson.

Lifetime residents include those who have gone away to college or military service and returned to their communities.

The project is also seeking long-term residents of a variety of Wisconsin communities, including Delavan and Genoa City. Long term is defined as 15 years or more.

Everyone is allowed to participate, even if his or her community is not on the list, a news release from the project said.

The survey asks questions such as, “Name for the school class in which you get exercise and play sports?”

People can fill in up to four answers. If nothing immediately comes to mind, they can check from a drop-down box for ideas. For example, the class that involves exercise and sports could be gym class, PE, phy ed or phys ed.

Why do changes in ordinary language matter?

“Because ordinary, everyday language is how people talk,” said Susan Huss-Lederman, associate professor of applied linguistics at UW-Whitewater.  “We can see what kind of everyday poets we are.”

Language is a living thing, and it reflects cultural changes, Huss-Lederman said. Some of those changes go unnoticed. People still talk about dialing a phone number, for example, even though hardly anyone has a dial phone.

“They're really embodying a bit of history,” Huss-Lederman said.

 Part of the joy of filling out the survey comes from seeing answers other people have given, that poetry of everyday language. For example:

--When you can see from the way a person acts that he's feeling important or independent, you say, “He seems to think he's (a) (the)________.”

“A big deal” or “the cat's pajamas” were what immediately came to mind. But other choices included “Mrs. Astor's pet horse,” and “some cheese.”

--If you speak sharply to somebody to make him be patient, you might say, “Hold ________!”

“Your horses” came immediately to mind, but so, apparently, did “your potatoes” and “your water.”

--Finish the sentence: “He hasn't enough sense to_____.”

“Come in from the rain”, “pour sand down a rat hole or “bell a buzzard” were a few of the expressions people offered.

The survey is a follow-up on fieldwork done by the Dictionary of American Regional English between 1965 and 1970. The goal is to look at the way the language has changed over the last five decades.



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