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Deciphering America's different dialects

As chief editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English, Emory alumna Joan Houston Hall leads a grand adventure through American language. Illustration by Su Blackwell.

The next time you go out for lunch, consider walking up to a counter and ordering an oblong sandwich, fried potatoes, and a sweet, carbonated beverage . . . please.

Sure, the server might look at you a little funny. But depending on what part of the country you're in, the sandwich could be a sub, a hoagie, a grinder, a Cuban, a hero, an Italian, or a poor boy; the potatoes could be French fries, home-fried potatoes, or cottage fries; and the beverage could be soda, pop, a soft drink—or, if you're anywhere near Atlanta, just a plain old Coke, thank you.

Deciphering the different dialects of the United States has been the delicate work of Joan Houston Hall, chief editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), since she finished graduate school at Emory and joined the project in 1975. Nearly a half-century in the making, DARE published its much-heralded fifth volume early this year, which reached the end of the alphabet — the final word being zydeco, a style of Cajun music common to Louisiana. (You might also say the dictionary now goes from A to izzard, a phrase meaning from beginning to end, or the epitome of something.)

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