Virginia G. McDavid, Dialectologist and Lexicographer

Virginia G. McDavid, Professor of English emerita at Chicago State University, an expert on gender differences in speech, a contributor to many dictionaries, and a consultant on usage and synonyms for The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, died on November 6, 2014, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, after a long illness. She was 88.

Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the midst of the Depression, Dr. McDavid was the daughter of a fireman on the Soo line and a schoolteacher. She often related that women in the mid-1940s had two career choices – nursing or teaching – and she had no interest in nursing. Intending first to teach high school English, her advisor at the University of Minnesota suggested that she look at other types of teaching. She took courses in English, including one with Robert Penn Warren, and graduated with a double major in English and History.

In 1945, with an extra hour in her schedule to fill, she enrolled in a class on American English taught by Harold B. Allen, who studied labeling practices in Samuel Johnson’s dictionary and who had conducted some of the field work for the nascent Linguistic Atlas of the North-Central States. The class proved to be a pivotal moment in Dr. McDavid’s career; she had found the two interests that would fill her professional life: dialect and dictionaries.

At a 1947 Summer Linguistics Institute at the University of Michigan, she studied dialectology with Hans Kurath and met one of the main fieldworkers for the Linguistic Atlas of the Middle and South Atlantic States – Raven I. McDavid, Jr., whom she married in 1950. During the remainder of the 1940s she conducted field research for Professor Allen in Minnesota and, with Raven, in the North-Central States.

Dr. McDavid earned her Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, with a dissertation on verb forms in the Upper Midwest, in 1956, while raising four young children ranging in age from three months to six years old. With her husband, Raven, she was the co-author of numerous articles on dialect and usage. The first of these was “The Relationship of the Speech of American Negroes to the Speech of Whites” (1951), a landmark in the study of African-American English.

She continued to research verb forms and labeling practices in dictionaries for the succeeding 45-plus years. With the publication of Webster’s Third International Dictionary in 1961, she was in the middle of a controversy over the usage note in the entry for “ain’t.” The Third’s entry distinguished between “ain’t” as a contraction for forms of “be” and “not” and forms of “have” and “not,” which was based in part on Dr. McDavid’s dissertation research. She was accused by a professor at the University of Michigan of making numerous errors and suppressing evidence. After pointing out that the evidence was fully laid out in a table in her dissertation, the professor was forced to concede his error.

When her husband joined the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1957, Dr. McDavid secured a position at Chicago Teacher’s College (now Chicago State University), where she was a member of the faculty until she retired in 1985. She taught courses on English composition, language and culture, and the history of English. Her book Writing Today’s English (1977, with Macklin Thomas) was prepared for her Chicago State students whose experience with Standard English was limited by their racially-segregated experience on the South Side of Chicago. Even after her retirement, Dr. McDavid continued her research, focusing on verb forms in the Linguistic Atlas materials, specifically differences between men and women in the choice of irregular verbs. Her work indicated that women in both the least educated group and those with a high school education consistently used Standard English forms more than men with the same education level. Among informants with a college education, there was little difference.

In the late 1970s, Dr. McDavid, her husband Raven, and a colleague at Chicago State, Dr. Thomas J. Creswell, were asked to be consultants on usage and dialect labels and notes for The Random House Dictionary of the English Language (second edition, unabridged). Work on this project began in early 1984. Following Raven’s death in October, 1984, this work was completed by Dr. McDavid and Dr. Creswell in 1987. Dr. McDavid remained Associate Editor of the Linguistic Atlas Project until her death. She was a long-time and prominent member of the American Dialect Society.

Dr. McDavid is survived by her sons, Charlie Jonas (Joan Collins) of San Francisco, Glenn McDavid (Mia) of Roseville, Minnesota, Raven I. McDavid III (Anne) of Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Tom McDavid (Joy Werlink) of Auburn, Washington; her daughter, Ann McDavid Reif (Tom Reif) of Aurora, Colorado; thirteen grandchildren; and two great-granddaughters. A memorial service will be held on January 2, 2015 in Colorado Springs.