Last week the internet caught fire with a bit of love for language, as it is blessedly wont to do. The spark this time was a collection of North Carolina State University PhD candidate Joshua Katz’s visualizations of regional dialect variations, which were presented at Business Insider, where they racked up tens of millions of views and quickly spread.
Over at Language Log, Ben Zimmer notes that the research behind Katz’s heat-map visualizations has been available for about a decade, and that—despite having been collected via not-quite-ideal online elicitation—it has been frequently repurposed over the years since it was produced by Bert Vaux and Scott Golder. Though the frequent obscuring of the data’s origins and potential shortcomings is a perhaps lamentable result of the workings of internet virality, it’s nevertheless truly exciting for the word nerds among us to see linguistic lighting strike the web.
As Zimmer also notes, such “voracious public appetite for dialect maps” likely bodes well for the forthcoming digital edition of the Dictionary of American Regional English. The site will be here all too soon, so let’s take a look.
Here’s one of Katz’s visualizations, this one showing answers to the question of what term the respondent uses “to refer to something that is across both streets from you at an intersection (or diagonally across from you in general)?”
We can dig into the same question at the DARE site. Let’s start with “kitty-corner,” which seems about even in popularity with “catty-corner,” above.
In the DARE entry for “kitty-corner,” we see a definition, a map indicating the national distribution of the term in responses to the original DARE survey, and a whole mess of documentation of the word’s use, going all the way back to 1890. In this case, we even get a recording of the term’s use, collected by those intrepid word-wagoneers way back when:
Off to the right there’s a section called “Survey Questions,” which indicates every question in the original DARE survey for which “kitty-corner” was offered as an answer. The third one down seems about the same as the prompt for Katz’s map: “If a drugstore is on one corner of a square and a gas station is on the far corner… The drugstore is ______ the gas station.” Those questions are all live links, and if we click this one we come to a page that shows us all of the terms elicited by that question, including:
So maybe from there you click on “catawampus,” and see that it’s used in fewer regions and—based on the number of survey questions listed—fewer circumstances than “kitty-corner.”
Want to compare the demographics of folks who say “kitty-corner” with folks who say “catawampus?” Do it. Maybe you see that one of the earliest uses of “catawampus” was in Crockett Almanacks, and you want to see what other words have been pulled from that source. Go for it. Just don’t look up “wormhole.” That’d be too meta.
The Dictionary of American Regional English site goes live this fall. Excited? Tell your librarian.