The first volume of the Dictionary of American English (DARE) was published in 1985, after 20+ years of research headed by Frederic Gomes Cassidy. The scope was so enormous that it took another 27 years before the final volume was completed and published this March. To celebrate, Lapham’s Quarterly tells the story behind the book.
“Aaron’s rod” to “zydeco”—between these two verbal bookends lies an immense and largely hidden American vocabulary, one that surely, more than perhaps any other aspect of society, reveals the wonderfully chaotic pluribus out of which two centuries of commerce and convention have forged the duller reality of the unum. Which was precisely what Cassidy and his fellow editors sought to do—to capture, before it faded away, the linguistic coat of many colors of this immigrant-made country, and to preserve it in snapshot, in part for strictly academic purposes, in part for the good of history, and in part, maybe, on the off chance that the best of the lexicon might one day be revived.