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Engrossing collection of linguistic Americana

Dictionary of American Regional English, Volume I, Frederic G. Cassidy, chief editor. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap/Harvard University Press. 903 pp. $60. No one reads a dictionary. But this weighty piece of Americana -- the first of several volumes -- is hard to crack without lingering over it for a few hours.

Scholarly, with a 156-page explanation of data collection methodology, the body of entries in this volume (which covers A through C) is engrossing even for a casual reader.

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And though the hefty price tag is probably enough to ward off all but the most serious collectors, DARE, as the nearly 100-year-old project is called, is just a fun book to have around. And its entries will not be found in any other dictionary.

A random sampling of colloquialisms, collected in more than 1,000 communities in all corners of the United States, can be amusing. For example, an expression like ``bugtussle'' is listed with its historic meaning, which is exactly what it says. Entries can also dredge up memories of American people and places you've known -- like the adverbial ``all-fired,'' meaning ``extreme.''

As a conversation piece, this book will spark debate.

Example: Is it catercorner, catty corner, or . . . catawampus? According to DARE, if you're from Oklahoma, Tennessee or Iowa you'll pick catercorner. If you're from Nebraska or Virginia, then catawampus should be your pick. But DARE researchers found the use of catty-corner to be ``widespread.''

The massive DARE project, conceived in 1889 and sponsored by the most prestigious of American linguists, found proper direction only as late as 1963 when editor Frederic G. Cassidy, a scholar at the University of Wisconsin, organized and raised the funds for the project. From 1965 to 1970, field workers interviewed 2,777 natives of US communities, using an extensive 1,800-entry questionnaire.

Though much of the introductory matter is highly technical, the questionnaire used for data collection is worth thumbing through. You can test yourself and your friends: (A) What is the noise a cow makes calling for her calf? (B) What is the name of the piece of upholstered furniture that you can stretch out on to rest? (C) What do you call a child who is always telling on other children?

[Editor's note: A quick, unscientific survey of the Monitor newsroom gleaned the following responses: (A) lowing, mooing, bellowing; (B) sofa, couch, divan, chesterfield, davenport; (C) tattletale, snitch, fink]

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Clara Germani is the Monitor's South American correspondent.

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