Monday, March 7, 2011

If You’re Feeling A Bit Droggy, Perhaps Some Duck Coffee Might Help…

Today, I finished the “first draft” of one of the new NERGC talks. There will, of course, be several more revisions and "improvements."

So . . . I think I'm feeling a bit droggy.  

 There’s still tweaking to do, but I’ll be doing that right up to the hour before the talk.  

Maybe some duck coffee will help.

Droggy?  Duck coffee?  Whassup widdat?

Several weeks ago, I observed that I had been doing this conference “speaking thing” for a very long time.  A few days ago, as I was rummaging on the shelves of a bookcase for a reference for one of the new talks, I stumbled upon a stack of cassette tapes.  One of the tapes was  from a lecture I did in Michigan in 1982, nearly 30 years ago. Yikes!

Today, I uncovered an advertisement for a genealogical conference in June 1987 at which I was one of the featured speakers.   

June 1987 was rather a while ago. Ronald Reagan was President then and had ordered air strikes on Muammar Qaddafi in Libya only 14 months earlier.  The Berlin Wall still stood, and Germany was a divided nation.

And I had been on the "speaker circuit" long enough to be a "featured speaker" some distance from home.

The conference, sponsored by the Indiana Historical Society, took place in South Bend and focused thematically on the 200th anniversary of the Northwest Ordinance and its implications for genealogists.  Even after nearly a quarter century, most of the speaker names will be familiar to today’s genealogists.
Here the advertisement - 

As you can see, the speakers (in addition to me) included: 

James Dent Walker (1928 – 1993), founder of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, worked at the National Archives, was the Supervisor of Military Records there and was the fourteenth person elected to the National Genealogical Society’s Genealogy Hall of Fame.   Jimmy introduced me to Alex Haley (author of Roots) in the mid-1980s. 
Elizabeth Shown Mills, FASG, former editor of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly and author extraordinaire (Evidence, Evidence Explained, Quick Sheets, etc.), who needs no introduction to today’s genealogists.  

James L. Hansen, now also a Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists, has been a fixture at the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Reference Library for a large number of years and is still a prolific author and a sought-after speaker of note.

But . . . Frederic G. Cassidy of Madison, Wisconsin?  His name is highlighted above. Who was/is Frederic G. Cassidy and why was he speaking at a genealogy conference nearly 25 years ago?  

The answer to those questions is the tale for today. Here’s the scoop:

I arrived in South Bend on Wednesday afternoon, June 3, 1987.  I had dinner with the conference organizers that evening and then reviewed my lecture notes for my next day’s presentation and went promptly to bed. 

The next morning, I went to the Century Center for my late-morning lecture on using maps in genealogical research.  After the talk, I returned to the adjoining Marriott, went to the restaurant area for lunch and was joined by a white-haired elderly gentleman who had also been at the Century Center that morning.   

That gentleman was Frederic Gomes Cassidy, who was approaching 80 but acted like he was 35.

Cassidy, born in Jamaica (the West Indies, not Long Island) was an English professor at the University of Wisconsin.  However, that’s not why he was at the Old Northwest conference.  He was there to speak about his monumental project: the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), the first volume of which had been released just a few years earlier (1985). It was more than a thousand pages long and covered only the first three letters of the alphabet. 

Fred Cassidy had been working on DARE since he began the project in 1965 and continued as its driving force until his death at 92 in June of 2000.  He lived to see four of its five massive volumes published.

Since its inception, the DARE project has employed hundreds of field workers armed with questionnaires who traversed the country to capture the rich variety of regionalisms that make American English what it is.    For example, you might call it “cottage cheese”, but other folks call it “pot cheese” or “smear cheese”.  In fact, there will be people who will argue loudly that “pot cheese” is definitely NOT “smear cheese”.  But, as Cassidy showed, it all depends on where you’re from. 

That thing you sit on (in your living room...or parlor...or front room) might be a “sofa” where you live, but my grandmother absolutely knew it was called a “davenport” and yours might have called it a “settee” or a “couch”.  Then there are “spiders” and “frying pans”, “pokes” and “sacks” and, of course, “front porches” and “stoops”.  

Don’t get me started on “soda”, “pop” and “soda pop” … not to mention “floats”, "frappes", “egg creams” and “coffee milk”.

Fred and I had a great lunch comparing notes.  I was speaking about using maps to track ancestral migrations; he was using maps and isoglosses (which look like pressure zones on weather maps) to illustrate the regional migration of words.  He was collecting and classifying regional word usage and word origins; I had written – (as a consultant to the US Peace Corps Training Program in Uganda way back in 1970) – a monograph entitled “English in Uganda – What To Expect”, wherein I explained to the newly arrived Peace Corps Volunteers the many subtle differences between spoken and written Ugandan, British, and American English, with a few Canadianisms thrown in for variety. 

Needless to say, it turned into a great “working lunch.” Of course, it didn’t hurt that I had long used his 1947 classic “Place Names of Dane County, Wisconsin” in one of my talks as an example of the kinds of scholarly works that genealogists need to learn more about.

Cassidy’s multi-volume Dictionary of American Regional English deserves to be much better known by family historians.  After all, if an ancestor’s letter mentions someone having the “mulligrubs” or if you’ve ever wondered what a “mourner’s bench” or “pussytoes” were, you’ll need to consult DARE. 

To learn more about Fred Cassidy and the DARE project, check out the DARE/ University of Wisconsin website here.

Also, this copy of the 2002 newsletter of the DARE project contains a wonderful biographical tribute to Fred Cassidy written by his daughter. Read it and the other newsletter articles to learn even more about this great scholar and the DARE project.

The fifth and final volume of the Dictionary of American Regional English is scheduled for publication sometime later this year. Check with your favorite reference librarian for it and for the earlier volumes. 

You’ll be glad you did.

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