LIANE HANSEN, host:
When you cook, do you use a skillet or a fry pan? At the deli, do you order a hoagie, a hero, a bomber or a grinder? You can find a passel of these localisms in the Dictionary of American Regional English. The final volume will be published soon, and if you're willing to pungle about 90 bucks for it, it could help you better understand your fellow Americans. Celeste Headlee checks it out.
CELESTE HEADLEE: President Clinton was giving a press conference in 1993 when someone mentioned that a certain Air Force official had criticized him. And according to Joan Hall, Clinton answered…
Ms. JOAN HALL (Chief Editor, DARE): Well, how could he say that about me? He doesn't know me from Adam's off ox.
HEADLEE: Hall is the chief editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English, or DARE.
Ms. HALL: I got a telephone call from someone at NPR because, apparently, most of the journalists in that press conference had no idea what he was talking about.
HEADLEE: As it turns out, the phrase means he doesn't know him at all, or doesn't know him from Adam. It was also used in a film "It's a Wonderful Life." And it's phrases like this that fill the dictionary. The first volume was released in 1975 and after five decades of research, S to Z will be published next year. Joan Hall says she gets letters all the time from people who use the dictionary, like a librarian in Tennessee.
Ms. HALL: Who said that a patron came to her and wanted to know about dry land fish. Well, she looked in every fish book she could think of to no avail. Finally, she looked in DARE and discovered that dry land fish is a very regional term found almost solely in Kentucky and Tennessee for a mushroom.
HEADLEE: The dictionary project was begun in the 1950s by a well-known linguist named Frederic Cassidy. He sent field workers out across the country in word wagons. Over six years, they talked to nearly 3,000 people and made recordings to capture pronunciations. Cassidy died in 2000 and his tombstone reads: On to Z! The DARE is unique because it tells us how we speak, not how to speak.
Ms. STEPHANIE GRAYSON (Founder, CorporateSpeechTrainer.com): It's very helpful because it's really more descriptive than prescriptive.
HEADLEE: Stephanie Grayson is the founder of CorporateSpeechTrainer.com. She says, in some ways, American language is becoming more uniform. Television and the Internet are giving us all a common vocabulary.
Ms. GRAYSON: We're living in a world of now, you know, 140 characters or less on Twitter.
HEADLEE: But linguist John Rickford of Stanford University says people speak one way in emails and another way at the local coffee shop.
Professor JOHN RICKFORD (Linguist, Stanford University): The primary kind of driving force behind language use and language change is face-to-face interaction. And that takes place in smaller communities and smaller groups, you know, the kinds of people you hang out with.
HEADLEE: So, I went to the local coffee shop, a Starbucks in suburban Detroit and talked to people about language. Let me ask you some of these words and see if you recognize any of them. Okay, monkey's wedding.
Ms. CHRISTY ZEN(ph): No.
Unidentified Child: A monkey gets married to another monkey.
Ms. ZEN: Yes, you are a monkey.
HEADLEE: Discomgolifusticated (ph).
Ms. ZEN: No.
Unidentified Child: No. What's that?
HEADLEE: Cockroach killers.
Ms. ZEN: No.
Unidentified Child: Cockroach killers, all right.
HEADLEE: What do you think I a mumble squibble is?
Mr. MARTEZ JOHNSON(ph): A who?
HEADLEE: A mumble squibble.
Mr. JOHNSON: Something that a kid made up.
HEADLEE: That's Christy Zen and Martez Johnson(ph). A monkey's wedding is a chaotic messy situation in Maine, discomgolifusticated is close to discombobulated. Cockroach killers are pointy shoes in New Jersey. And what many people call a noogie is a mumble squibble in North Carolina. While it's fun to learn about colloquial language, Joan Hall says there are serious practical usage for the DARE, as well. Forensic linguists used it when a little girl was kidnapped and police had only a ransom note to go on.
Ms. HALL: And in this ransom note, the writer said, put $10,000 cash in a trash can on the devil's strip.
HEADLEE: Devil's strip is a term for that strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street. The phrase is used only in a tiny section of Ohio between Youngstown and Akron.
HANSEN: And as it happened, one of the suspects on the police list was a man from Akron. And being confronted with the linguistic as well as the other evidence, he ultimately confessed.
HEADLEE: Doctors also use the DARE to understand their patients who use colorful language to describe their complaints.
HANSEN: A patient might come in and say, doc, I've got the groundage. I've got pipjennies.
HEADLEE: That means a rash on the feet or pimples. The DARE is meant to capture words and phrases like these before they disappear - the kind of language that sticks in your memory, as with Eileen Rikard's(ph) neighbor in Louisiana.
Ms. EILEEN RIKARD: There was a very colorful neighbor we had. And I looked at him one day and I said, isn't it a beautiful day? And he said, if I was any happier, I'd have to be two people.
HEADLEE: The Dictionary of American Regional English will finally reach Z next year when the last volume is released. The finished work contains 75,000 entries and will help you understand that if you're invited to a pitch-in or a scramble, you're really going to a potluck.
For NPR News, I'm Celeste Headlee in Detroit.
HANSEN: And if you want to try a random scoot into the world of unusual phrasings, visit our Web site npr.org, and there's a list of quirky and unusual phrases.