Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Hot Diggity DARE

The Goodson Law Library has just received the latest – and last – print volume of DARE, better known by its full title, the Dictionary of American Regional English. This massive, decades-long effort to document spoken English across America can be found in our Reference Collection at the call number Ref PE2843 .D52 1985. The set is arranged as follows:
  • Volume I (1985):  A – C
  • Volume II (1991): D – H
  • Volume III (1996): I - O
  • Volume IV (2002): P – Sk
  • Volume V (2012):  Sl – Z
  • Volume VI (2013): maps, indexes, questionnaire, and field data
DARE has a fascinating history, which began in 1889 with the founding of the American Dialect Society. The dictionary's web home at the University of Wisconsin outlines the print edition's development and format. Individual entries attempt to trace the earliest appearance of a term into American English, and also identify the region(s) where the word/phrase is most commonly used. The latest volume is an intriguing conclusion to the set, as it allows researchers to review the actual list of responses received to specific questionnaire inquiries, ordered by their popularity. So if you've ever wondered what to call a very light rain (question B21), how to describe particularly strong coffee (H74a), or wanted alternate terms for splitting a restaurant bill (II9), volume VI will get you started; it'll also highlight some colorful exclamations of joy (NN6a) which could have served as alternate titles to this blog entry. (And yes, the age-old debate of "soda or pop?" is addressed in question H78.)

Why should a law library concern itself with a slang dictionary? It's true that the original survey questionnaire, which circulated within 1,000 representative American communities between 1965-1970, doesn't cover much law-related ground (unless you count question P35's descriptions of "illegal methods for shooting deer" – generally at night, and known as "fire-lighting" in South Carolina, "jack-light" in the Northeast, and "headlighting" around Texas, according to the regional response map). But dictionaries of all kinds are an important tool for legal researchers, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas even cited to DARE last year while dissenting from the majority in Smith v. Cain. Surprisingly, the Smith dissent looks to be this dictionary's first appearance in a published federal court opinion, although it has also been cited in trial motions and appellate briefs.

Other dictionaries, of course, are regularly cited in court opinions: DARE's more highbrow cousin The Oxford English Dictionary has been name-checked by courts literally thousands of times, and can be found not far from DARE in the Goodson Law Library, at the call number Ref PE1625 .O87 1989 or in an online version available to the University. The full text of DARE is not yet available online, although the website currently offers 100 entries as well as reel-to-reel audio samples of the 1960s survey respondents.

Whether you need to know the definition of a legal term of art or a confusing piece of slang, be sure to Ask a Librarian for some good starting places.