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Ex Libris

November 10, 1985|RICHARD EDER

For word-lovers, the irregular but reliable reappearance of the Prescriptive-Descriptive battle is a joust akin to Guelph-Ghibelline or Nature-Nurture, and fought over how you use dictionaries. Neither side can be absolute for itself. Prescribers would have to explain why we are not to speak Chaucerian English. If Describers think that dandelions give the public park of language a comfortably lived-in look, few would hold for crowding out grass altogether. And now, into the confrontation, comes the Dictionary of American Regional English; rather slowly.

It took nearly 100 years, in fact. In 1890, the American Dialect Society began to issue unhurried progress reports. In 1907, word went out that more work was needed. In 1919, its principal compiler warned that the project was in "a critical position." In 1929, an editor was named to hurry things along. Some might think, the editor wrote, that an end was in sight, but not so. In 1940, the Dialect Society held two meetings to plan things. In 1962, an English professor named Frederic Cassidy published an article, "The A.D.S. Dictionary--How Soon?"

Clearly a shocker, that word soon. Prof. Cassidy was made editor, virtually on the spot. Twenty-three years later, he and a thousand or so informants have produced an exhaustive listing of words and phrases from mountain-hollows, bayous, prairie farms and inner-city slums. It is complete from A to C. We await D to F.

The Dictionary undoubtedly leans toward the Describers. Language, you would have to conclude, is made, not simply guarded. And the Dictionary takes us into a national linguistic kitchen where the chefs are gleefully at work breaking eggs for omelets.

It is a traveling experience into rural byways and urban dead-ends. An Oklahoma complainer is a bawl-baby, and if its complaint is loud enough to reach Pennsylvania, instead of annoying you, it will behoodle you. In Massachusetts, a smart aleck is an act-ass, and a long time is an age of years. "Back me a letter" you might say when you want an answer in South Carolina, where stuck-up people are considered airified. An astounded Pennsylvanian is knocked ace-over-apex; an exhausted Idahoan is absquinchiated.

Indiana milk that's just beginning to turn is blinking, and a Texas pie with no upper crust is a boggy-top. Your cross-eyed Texan is born on Wednesday looking both ways for Sunday. Take your time over something in Tennessee and you will be doing it by the littles. A bottom is a bohunkus in Washington, D.C.; across the Potomac in Virginia, it is a bombosity.

When you're feeling poorly in the Southeast you may simply have the can't-help-its, but in Georgia, you've got the bots, the scours and the thumps. If you cabbage someone's wallet in Arizona or New York you may go to jail; in Chicago you could end up in the crossbar hotel.

In the Dictionary's prefatory section, we get examples from other parts of the alphabet showing how folk speech can zig where standard speech zags. And the zigs are often more flavorful.

There is something about "ooching over" that "moving over" lacks. There is power in apparently unlettered reversals. How about a pourdown instead of a downpour? Where would the art of war be if the instructors taught ticktacks instead of tactics?

Reiteration can have a stately, classical force. Bare-naked suggests fate as well as circumstance; tooth-dentist strips the professional masks from medieval torture. Other languages use the double negative to reinforce "no"; in English we consider it's a logical reversal and means "yes." So how about a triple negative: ain't got nary none? Or the exponential simplification of the triple plural: feetses? A centipede has 33 feetses and one foot.

As I say, it seems to be a Prescribers' rout. Man is a naming animal all the way back to Adam and Eve. Take that away and he is less human. Language sprouts close to the ground; from here to the next hilltop. Send down a miner and he will come up with coal and a phrase or two born in the pit.

And yet. Does it strike you that, vivid as many of the cited expressions may be, there is something a bit intrusive and precious about them? Would it absquinchiate you to hear them all the time at lunch or read them in your newspaper?

A flagstone walk is fine; but it would be visually exhausting, never mind the effect on the tires, to drive 500 miles on a flagstone highway. The lines of a brick house would melt if each brick was differently ornamented. Complex structures need simple units; literature, philosophy and other grand language-work is not accomplished by words that strut too much.

If it is to be supple, universal and capable of height, language requires a certain plainness and regularity. It is not a solo of words. Someone must keep the dancers together. We need the Prescribers. They will lose ground bit by bit but by defending every inch of the retreat they are time's escapement. The language of the present will not be immobilized by the past, but it will not stampede it, either.

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