Do You Know Frederic Cassidy?
It’s my usual practice to listen to my local NPR station while I’m at work. I get the opportunity to keep up-to-date on national and local news. One of the shows I listen to quite often is The Diane Rehm Show and his past Wednesday I looked forward to the programme about the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE). I like languages. I like to learn how they are used and why people choose the words they do. The right word can colour a sentence, provoke emotion, earn you a friend, or convey an idea even better than a picture. The title of the show was especially attractive to me because it made me think of patois/patwa – Jamaican English if you will. I love patois…even though I think that Jamaicans, for efficiency’s sake, need to have a strong command of (traditional) English. For me, some things can only be properly expressed in patois. It has its place in Jamaican culture, history, and society. It’s the vehicle that we use to express our true selves, to bare our souls. I think that it can and should be used to improve instruction in Jamaican schools. So I tuned in to hear about how this project had catalogued the differences in language across America; it might help me to sort through these ideas and issues about patois. About 15 minutes into the show Diane asked about DARE’s founder, Frederic Cassidy…who was born in Jamaica. Listen, few things make my ears perk up like “Jamaica” so when she said that I began paying closer attention.
Turns out that Mr. Cassidy emigrated with his family to Ohio from Jamaica when he was 12. The New York Times obituary written for him in 2000 remembers him as
a lexicographer who followed his love of folk language into the nooks and crannies of Jamaica’s creole and across the linguistic expanses of the United States
The legacy of his work with DARE was evident even in this 1-hour edition of the DR Show. Folks called in to share phrases and words used by their grandparents or in their hometowns and it turns out that many of their offerings are captured in the many volumes of the dictionary. Who knew there were so many words for “sandwich” and “roll.” Listening to this show + reading Mr. Cassidy’s obituary and the tribute to him on the DARE site made my heart smile. Nothing could touch me for the rest of the day because I was cloaked in pride and joy and my brain was humming. Mr. Cassidy used his curiosity about and fascination with language to his advantage. And, he didn’t forget his family influence (he fondly cited his dad’s love of odd words as influencing his work) and Jamaican roots, he built on them
His first [venture into exploring language] was in the 1950’s and 60’s, when he traveled through his native Jamaica to research a single-volume dictionary of Jamaican English and Creole. He found people at work, cutting cane or making dugout canoes and recorded the words they used in their answers.
His body of work includes Jamaica Talk: Three Hundred Years of the English Language in Jamaica (1961) and the Dictionary of Jamaican English (1967).
I cherish learning about Mr. Cassidy because, for me, he’s an example of someone who emigrated from Jamaica and who excelled doing something that folks probably looked at him funny for. But he did what he loved, he followed his passion and he did it well. Yeah, I cherish it…a lot.