Talk the Talk: Saving the Dictionary of American Regional English

DARE

The Dictionary of American Regional English (or DARE, for short) may soon be no more.  After nearly 50 years of compiling colloquialisms from across the nation, the program has lost 80% of its funding from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Like any language-lover, my instinctive response to the news was to feel awful, worried, and wonder what could possibly be done to save DARE.  As I looked into it more, it seemed like a lot, actually. You don’t need to be a marketing guru (which I am most definitely not) to discover some problematic things about how DARE presents itself to the general public.  Here are three tips I’d love to give the dictionary’s staff:

1.  Tell your story better.  

DARE originally drew from audio interviews conducted in the 1960’s and ’70’s, and it’s constantly being updated through the analysis of print sources.  Around the web, articles and blogs praise DARE’s usefulness, give concrete examples of how it’s helpful to a variety of professions, and specifically mention notable fans and users, like “A Way with Words” host Grant Barrett and Dr. Douglas Kelling, a physician who’s found DARE essential when he communicates with certain patients. If you check out the dictionary’s official website, though, you’ll probably get the impression that it’s a somewhat stagnant, fairly unimportant resource.

Another place where storytelling is disturbingly lacking is DARE’s gofundme page, which is a mishmash of hyperlinks and University of Wisconsin sports references. There’s barely a hint about what DARE is, why it’s important, and why anyone but UW sports fans should help preserve it.

 2.  Spiff things up a bit! 

A digital version of DARE went online in 2013, but the main website looks like something from the early days of the internet.  I’m not a big fan of the current trend of websites that privilege good looks over being user friendly, but there should be some visual appeal.  Most academically-approved online dictionaries are very easy to use but are decked out in more contemporary fonts and feature higher quality images.  DARE has a small budget, so why not ask volunteers or UW students to give the website a free facelift in exchange for academic credit or even just something that would look great on their resumes?

3.  Add engaging content.

One thing I love about many of the major online dictionaries is that in addition to word definitions, they also offer interesting language-related articles and quizzes.  I stop by to find out what something means, and find myself sticking around to, say, read about some grammar myth-busting or take a quiz to find out how strong my vocabulary is. Making visitors linger and come back keeps the dictionary relevant, and the increased web traffic is alluring to advertisers, which can mean a dictionary’s survival (for example, this Slate article explains: “[Merriam Webster] generates more income from online advertising than it does from the sale of physical books.”).

Believe it or not, lots of people are glad to write web articles out of love, not for monetary compensation.  And writing for DARE’s site would offer compensation, in a way: contributors get to share their passion with the world and they’d have a nice writing credit at a well-regarded site to put on their resume.

Saving DARE will be tough, but it may not be impossible.  Ultimately, it seems like it comes down to this irony: in order for DARE to survive, the dictionary’s staff will have to learn how to speak to the very people whose language they document so well.

by Alysa Salzberg

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