America, I take it all back. After snarking about your daft way with names, you come back with the perfect riposte: the Dictionary of American Regional English. I'm not often moved by an inanimate object, or the idea of one, but reading about this newly completed work (its fifth volume, with entries from S to Z, will be released in March) made my heart swell.

This is not your average dictionary. These are the words that people say, words born of a locality. To whet your appetite: "goozle", meaning throat or windpipe, as in: "They served good, cold beer in those days - it almost froze your goozle pipes." Not to be confused with "goozlum", meaning sauce or gravy, as in: "Pass the goozlum for these flapjacks."

Then there's "pinkwink", meaning young frogs, as they are called in Cape Cod. Not to be confused with "pinkletink", meaning young frogs but only on Martha's Vineyard. My favourite so far is "futz", meaning, well, futz, as in: "Stop futzing around." (Clue: it comes from the German furzen, meaning to fart.)

The sounds of the words conjure up plains and dusty towns and old ladies drinking lemonade on the porch. "Pass the goozlum for these flapjacks" - I mean, that's the kind of sentence you spend your whole life waiting to say.

The other joy of this dictionary is its genesis. Galvanised by the passion of one man, Frederic G Cassidy, a professor from Wisconsin, the work began in 1963. Cassidy stayed involved in the project until his death in 2000 at the age of 92. And what a project: 80 fieldworkers were sent to more than 1,000 communities across the US to ask people questions covering all aspects of their lives. They sought to catch words like butterflies, casting a huge net in the hope that they'd snare a gem. And they did, thousands of them.

A dictionary seems a simple thing (reflected in its etymology: it comes directly from the Latin for "word", dictio). We've had those big books on our shelves so long that we forget the human industry they demand. But this feat reminds you of their true worth: how much our words tell us about ourselves and how many stories they have of their own.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Boris vs Ken