A week after I spent a delightful morning with Fred Cassidy in the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) offices on the UW-Madison campus, in September 1999, he sent me a card that ended, "On to Z!"
The acclaimed author Lorrie Moore, in a New York Times tribute to Cassidy after his death in 2000, at 92, noted that Fred made frequent use of the phrase. He would say it on exiting a room or a conversation.
It was said cheerfully because that's how Fred was, but it referenced the serious goal of completing his life's work.
Now — a dozen years after Cassidy's death, and 50 years after the American Dialect Society appointed him editor of its proposed dictionary — DARE has at last arrived at Z.
Volume V in the series — spanning Sl to Z — has been delivered to the DARE offices in Helen C. White Hall. The official publication date is next month, but the books shipped early and should be available for purchase soon.
It's an important milestone in the long history of the series William Safire of the New York Times once called "the most exciting linguistic project going on in the United States."
The DARE project — breathtaking in its ambition — involved canvassing the United States in an effort to document the wildly various words and phrases used by Americans in localities across the country.
The new volume, for instance, includes the word "tavern," which in most places is simply a place that sells alcoholic beverages. In northwest Iowa and southeast South Dakota, however, a "tavern" is a loose-meat sandwich with tomato sauce — what other Americans might call a Sloppy Joe. (The tavern sandwich was named for a tavern in Sioux City that first served it in 1924.)
In 1999, Cassidy explained it to me like this: "Where do they say it this way? Where do they say it that way? Where don't they say it all?"
One thing seems certain, and that's what Cassidy would say now that DARE has reached Z.
"He would be thrilled," Joan Houston Hall, DARE's current chief editor, said last week.
She and Cassidy were friends and colleagues for 25 years, since Hall joined DARE in 1975. She took over as editor following Cassidy's death in 2000.
Last week Hall stressed that while reaching Z was indeed a milestone, it did not mean DARE's work — the current staff numbers 12 — was done.
They are already preparing a sixth volume of comprehensive supplementary material as well as working on a digital edition that will allow additions uncovered since the printed volumes were published.
I have no doubt Hall is right when she says how pleased her mentor Cassidy would be about all of this.
I can still see him that morning in 1999, white hair and mustache, sitting in a break room of the DARE offices in Helen C. White sharing stories with staffers over coffee.
Someone mentioned the years 1965-70, when Cassidy and 80 field workers (mostly graduate students) fanned out across the United States with tape recorders to do the interviews that unearthed the words and phrases that eventually became the DARE books.
"I think Sheila Kolstad was the only one who got shot at," somebody said. "It was in Kentucky, and she was in the middle of some sort of strike."
Cassidy eventually invited me to join him as he shuffled from the break room to his office, which overlooked Science Hall.
He was 91 then, and still fully engaged. He came to the office daily. (A native of Jamaica, he first came to UW-Madison to teach in 1939.)
Cassidy loved talking about DARE. He told me how the American Dialect Society first approached him in the early 1960s. They'd been talking about a regional dictionary since the 19th century.
"They said, 'Go to it!'" Cassidy recalled. "'We'll back you.'"
He laughed. "Of course, they had no money. We got a grant from the Office of Education to start."
Funding has always been a challenge.
At the time of our chat in 1999, three volumes of DARE had been published, taking the project through the letter O.
Volume IV appeared in 2002, and now they have made it to Z. Hall said there will be a launch party for Volume V in Madison this spring.
She said they have a new motto for the work still to be done: "On Beyond Zebra!" Dr, Seuss — and Fred Cassidy — would approve.
Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or email@example.com. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.