IU slang expert takes on new book, new title

Think of IU associate English professor Michael Adams as a word nerd. A grammar geek. The sultan of slang, even.

Author of “Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon” and “Slang: The People’s Poetry,” Adams is expecting a new book on profanity to be published by Oxford University Press in the spring. He couldn’t say much, but apparently there’s a chapter involving the HBO hit TV series “The Sopranos,” which should make for some awesomer-than-usual academic reading.

Michael Adams

Michael Adams

Plus, he’s just been elected as president of the Dictionary Society of North America.

At the society’s recent biennial conference, Adams presented a paper on the early history of the Dictionary of American Regional English, a collection of regional and folk speech from the United States that’s been published serially through Harvard University’s Belknap Press.

(What do they mean by “regional and folk speech,” you ask? Think about the age-old pop versus soda question, or whether you call them pancakes, hot cakes or flapjacks.)

“DARE is a well-respected dictionary that’s been hit hard by sequestration just as it needed promised NEH funds to prepare a digital edition. Luckily, private donors were found to make up for the lost funding and support that effort,” said Adams, who detailed the dictionary’s history in the fall 2011 issue of Humanities, the magazine for the National Endowment for the Humanities. “And there are wonderful stories surrounding it — a doctor, for example, who received a patient’s history in dialect, but with the dictionary was able to figure out what was going on. So it’s not just something we consider academically; it can have significant social effects.”

The dictionary’s approach can be considered unusually adventurous, he said. It both reconceived dialectology — which studies language based on geographic distribution and associated features — and introduced a new variety of historical dictionary.

“DARE teaches us about American regional speech, of course,” Adams wrote in Humanities. “It also teaches us to think big, put aside assumptions, draw on traditions when useful, and make things new. It says to us: Whatever transformative project in the humanities you may have in mind, dare to do it.”

The Department of English is part of the College of Arts and Sciences at IU Bloomington.

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