About the DARE Survey

DARE Chief Editor Frederic G. Cassidy began work on the dictionary by finalizing the DARE Questionnaire to address as many areas as possible of our daily lives: from time and weather to household items, farming, trees and flowers, birds and insects, school, courtship and marriage, religion, health, and money. There were more than 1,600 questions.

Cassidy and fieldworkers with a Word Wagon

DARE Chief Editor Frederic G. Cassidy with Fieldworkers Reino Maki (left) and Ben Crane in front of a “Word Wagon” in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives, 1965.

Then he selected just over a thousand communities across the U.S., chosen to be as evenly distributed as possible while still sampling all the places that were notable for historic events or migration patterns. He recruited a group of 80 Fieldworkers (mostly graduate students, but also some professors), and between 1965 and 1970 they were sent out to the selected communities to interview people who had lived there all their lives. Initially, some of the Fieldworkers traveled in minimally-outfitted vans dubbed “Word Wagons.”

A simulation of a DARE interview

Fieldworker Frederic G. Cassidy interviewing “Informant” Goldye Mohr in Madison, Wisconsin. A simulation of a DARE interview. Photo courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives, 1975.

The Fieldworkers had to go “cold” to their communities and find people who were natives of each place and who had the time and the interest to answer all or part of the questionnaire. Over a period of six years they managed to do interviews in 1,002 communities across the country, talking in all to 2,777 people.

The Informants who participated were also asked if they would make an audiotape recording; 1,843 of them graciously agreed to do so. Each one was asked to read a story called “Arthur the Rat” (a passage designed to include all the important pronunciation variants in American English) and to talk informally about any topic of interest. The resulting recordings thus provide both nationwide examples of the same text, allowing contrastive analysis of pronunciation across the country, and a large body of conversational speech comprising a major source of mid-twentieth-century oral history.

Listening to the interviews

Project Assistants Beth Witherell (left) and Jennifer Ellsworth, listening to DARE tape recordings. Photo courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives, 1971.

While the interviewing was being done, computer people in Madison had been working on the aspect of the project that makes DARE unique: the creation of the population-adjusted maps found in the text of the Dictionary, which show where in the U.S. particular words are used. The computer program also analyzes the social data for each Informant who uses the word so that we can determine whether there are disproportionate numbers of speakers who are old, middle-aged, or young, or who are male rather than female, Black rather than White, well educated rather than poorly educated (using five levels of education), or urban rather than rural (again, using five segments on the urban to rural scale).

Is it a skillet? or fry pan? or spider?

Fieldworker Ruth Porter with a skillet—or is it a fry pan, or a spider? Photo courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives, 1965.

In addition to the fieldwork data, the Editors use citations from a vast collection of printed materials, including the ADS lists, newspapers, government documents, histories, novels, poems, and ephemeral materials, to illustrate each entry word. Editors include the earliest known usage of each word, a sampling of other examples of use over time, and a contemporary example if possible. In this way, DARE provides a history of each of its headwords. The material from the DARE fieldwork is incorporated whenever appropriate, and maps are included in the text when they show regional distributions.