DARE Needs Your Support
The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) is the crown jewel of North American lexicography. It’s a six-volume dictionary of regionalisms gathered from across the United States. The sixth and final volume was published this year, but its work is not yet done. The dictionary’s staff is hard at work creating a digital version that will not only make the work more accessible, but will be the home for future updates and additions. Or would be except DARE’s work has been threatened by a sudden loss of funding. The foundation that has long funded the project has declined to renew the grant, and the University of Wisconsin, where the dictionary is housed, is itself in severe financial straits due to cuts in government funding.
DARE editor Joan Houston Hall reports that the staff will be laid off as of July and that her own position disappears in January. The dictionary is on life support and reduced to begging for scraps in order to stay alive long enough to win another grant.
If you are able to contribute, you can do so here.
Originally a noun (and still a noun in some isolated uses), the adjective dismal comes into English, like many of our words, with the Normans, a compound formed from the Old French phrase dis mal, which in turn is from the Latin dies mali or “bad days.” The noun dismal, meaning bad or unlucky days, appears in English c. 1300. For example, around 1369 Chaucer writes in The Book of the Duchess, lines 1206–07:
I trowe hyt was in the dismalle,
That was the .x. woundes of Egipte.
(I believe it was in the dismal,
that was the ten wounds of Egypt.)
The dismal, also called the Egyptian days because they were first calculated by Egyptian astrologers, consisted of two days per month on which it was unlucky to start a journey or begin a venture. In the Middle Ages, the days became associated with plagues of Egypt described in Exodus, hence the Chaucer quote.
By the fifteenth century the association with the Latin dies, “days,” had been sufficiently forgotten that people started referring to them with the redundant dismal days, as in Lydgate’s Siege of Thebes, written c. 1421, line 2893:
He hath pronounced [...] his Cleer conceyte [...] her dysemol daies and her fatal houres.
(He has pronounced [...] his clear understanding [...] her dismal days and her fatal hours.)
By the sixteenth century, dismal was being used as an adjective meaning unlucky or disastrous. By the seventeenth century it was being used to mean dark, gloomy, or cheerless.
Sources: “dismal, n. and adj.” Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition, 1989; “dismal, n. and adj.” Middle English Dictionary, 2001.
The practice of playing tricks on other people on the first of April arose in Europe and crossed the channel to Britain in the late seventeenth century. No one is certain why April first is associated with pranks, and there are numerous conjectures, but since none have any strong evidence supporting them, I won’t list them here.
The earliest known use of the phrase April fool in English is in William Congreve’s 1693 play The Old Batchelour (1.1.5):
That’s one of Loves April-fools, is always upon some errand that’s to no purpose.
But this is a general reference to a man smitten with love, rather than the victim of a prank. But within a two decades we have references to the practice, witnessed by Joseph Addison in the pages of The Spectator in 1711:
An ingenious Tribe of Men [...] who are for making April Fools every Day in the Year. These Gentlemen are commonly distinguished by the name of Biters.
And Adam Fitz-Adam refers to April Fool’s Day in his 1753 book The World:
No wise man will tell me that it is not as reasonable to fall out for the observance of April-fool-day.
Source: The Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd edition, “April fool, n.,” September 2008.
creek, up a creek
I had no idea that British usage of creek was different from the use of the word in the rest of the English-speaking world until I was translating an Old Norse work (appropriately enough regarding the discovery and exploration of Vinland) and found that my Old Norse dictionary, produced in the U. K., translated the word vágr as “bay, creek.” Unsure what was intended, a bay or a creek, I did some digging and discovered in British dialect the two words were synonyms. (Just to be clear, there is no etymological connection with the Old Norse vágr. Creek is simply a translation.)Read the rest of the article...
Acre, the unit of land measurement, comes down to us from the Old English æcer. The word is common throughout the Germanic languages, and has cognates in other Indo-European languages too, like the Latin ager and the Greek ἀγρός ”field," and the Sanskrit ajra ”plain, open country.” The modern spelling is influenced by the Norman French version of the word.
The exact definition of acre has varied over the centuries, and originally it referred to the amount of land a team of oxen could plow in one day, as recorded in Ælfric’s Colloquy, an early eleventh century schoolbook for teaching Latin, which among other things describes various occupations. It has this to say about a plowman:
Omni die debeo aratre [read arare] integrum agrum aut plus : ælce dæg ic sceal erian fulne æþer [read æcer] oþþe mare.
(Each day I must plow a full acre or more.)
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition)
Holt, a word for a wooded area, a copse, goes back to Old English. It’s root is common Germanic, with cognates found in Old Norse, Old Frisian, Old Saxon, Old High German, etc.
The word is found in line 2598 of Beowulf to describe how the hero’s men abandon him when faced with the dragon:
ac hy on holt bugon, ealdre burgan
(but they fled into the wood to save their lives)
Perhaps the most famous appearance of the word is in line six of “General Prologue” to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales:
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
(When Zephyr also with the his sweet breath
has inspired in every holt and heath
There’s really not much else to say about this word. I came across it while reading an Old Norse account of the settlement of Vinland and wondered if it was a borrowing from Old Norse. The English word isn’t borrowed, it’s just cognate with the Old Norse. Although in Icelandic it means a stony hill—not many trees in Iceland. And indeed, in the account I’m reading, Eiriks saga Rauða or Þorfinns saga Karlsefnis (Eric the Red’s Saga or Thorfinn Karlsefni’s Saga), from a late fifteenth-century manuscript, the word does indeed mean hill as it is contrasted with lowlands:
Þar fundu þeir sjálfsána hveitiakra, þar sem lægðir váru, en vínviðr alt þar sem holta kendi.
(There they found wild-growing (self-sown) wheat fields where there was low-lying land, and grapevines wherever there were hills.)
Book of Kells Now Online
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
The Chronicle of Higher Education has a detailed article on how the transition to digital and online formats are changing dictionaries. Digital dictionaries are more convenient, provide feedback to lexicographers on what words are being searched, and have the tools to track social trends in vocabulary use.
Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles Online
The first edition, from 1967, of The Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles is now available online. A second edition is in preparation with publication targeted for 2015.
Making this resource freely available is a good thing, but the dictionary does have its limitations. Most notably, it is from 1967, so many recent Canadianisms are not to be found in it. There is no entry for poutine, for example. Also, the DCHP only includes citations from Canadian sources. While this policy is great for tracking Canadian usage, users must remain aware that many of the terms are older in other dialects. For example, the OED has a British use of Chesterfield a decade before the word appears in Canada, and use of toque goes back to the sixteenth century. And in a bad web design choice, users must click on each citation to see the bibliographic data, which is annoying and time consuming.
So while the DCHP is not a one-stop language site, it is a valuable addition to the lexicographic resources available on the web.
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton