Tuesday, May 7, 2013

DARE to struggle, DARE to win?

This recent "Big Nate" strip took me back to my Ohio childhood, and to those exciting occasions when a box of assorted chocolates made its appearance at our table. With five kids competing for the "good" candies, there were a fair number of disappointments (maple nut! mystery fruit jelly!) and frequent attempts to return these rejects, poked or slightly bitten, to their little fluted cups. At which point another kid was sure to say, "No spitbacks!"

(In Nate's case, I guess it would be "No sniffbacks!")

And what does spitback have to do with DARE, the wonderful Dictionary of American Regional Usage? Well, when I went to check the status of spitback -- real Midwestern word or just family usage? -- DARE was the first place I looked. It wasn't there, nor in my slang dictionaries, which only gave the later (carburetor-, drug-, and sex-related) senses.

I emailed DARE's editor, Joan Houston Hall, to ask if the word had shown up in the project's files after the S volume was printed. No, she said, "but your comment has just been filed so that we can include this if we're able to update the text." And she has a lead on it: "I do remember that one staff member has told of her grandmother's going through a new box of chocolates, poking a hole in the bottom of each before deciding which one to choose. I'll see if she had a name for it."

But her if, as you've probably heard, is a very big if. DARE has completed its print edition, but to publish online and keep updating its research, it needs money, and funding is falling short. Aside from the Oxford English Dictionary and a couple of fine slang dictionaries, I can't think of another reference work I'd rather see in a searchable online format. So I've made a donation (the DARE website takes you to the relevant University of Wisconsin form), and I hope you will too. (And think about possible angels; wouldn't Garrison Keillor, regionalist and word lover, be a great spokesman, even if he is a Minnesotan?) 

Back to spitback. My search continued on the Web, where I did eventually find a couple of cites that suggest the word was not our family's coinage. "Valentine gift-giving is complicated," one blogger advised:
Rung Two on the Chocolate ladder is inhabited by Godiva, Esther Price, Fanny Farmer and Sees. You can’t go wrong with these, unless you dive in, take a bite and leave a spitback -- before she opens up the box. 
Another online commenter asked, "How many of those candies are spitbacks? You know, you take a little bite off a candy, make a face and put it back?"  And there are clues (though not conclusive ones) that both hail from Chicago, near enough for a connection to Northern Ohio speech.

But as this meager sample shows, spitback is fading away. My sister says even her kids (still Ohioans) don't know it -- perhaps because candy nowadays is regularly available in bars and individually wrapped bites, so an assortment is a rare and not so special treat. If you've heard the word, I hope you'll let me know, and Joan Houston Hall as well. It deserves to be in DARE, and DARE deserves a shining place in the online firmament.


Gregory Lee said...

Disclaimer: I'm not acquainted with DARE, and I've never been much interested in lexicography.

I'm much more comfortable with the Wikipedia open system of compiling knowledge references and making them all generally accessible than the old-hat DARE system. Time to move on, guys.

John McIntyre said...

I'm much less comfortable with the unreliable information provided on Wikipedia and prefer to trust people who know what they are doing.

cucaracha said...

I wonder if 'spitback' is really 'spit back'. Might it be the old version of "double-dip2?

empty said...

@John McIntyre: Maybe that's the answer to your question"What do you say I am?": Someone who knows what he's doing.