Michael Adams

Michael Adams


Provost Professor, English

Chair, English


  • Ph.D., University of Michigan, 1988

About Michael Adams

I study the English language, especially of English words, and also specialize in the history, theory, and practice of lexicography. Studying the language requires familiarity with a wide variety of texts, spread over time, space, and type. In my case, this includes not only traditional literary genres but popular genres, like graphic novels, television, and film, as well as “new media,” like Web texts, text messaging, etc.

I have had the good fortune to work on various dictionary projects, including the Middle English Dictionary and the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4/e). I was a contributing editor to both the Barnhart Dictionary Companion (Merriam-Webster, 1999-2001) and Word Mysteries and Histories: From Abracadabra to Zeus (Houghton Mifflin, 2004). For several years, I was editor of Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America, and, for a decade, I was editor of the quarterly journal American Speech. I’ve been president of the Dictionary Society of North America and the American Dialect Society.

Lexicography, in all its aspects, is a deeply rooted, ongoing professional interest of mine, but I have other equally strong scholarly interests, especially slang and jargon, but more generally linguistic creativity. Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon (2003) is a good example of my work in this field; more recently, I have written a general account, titled Slang: The People’s Poetry (2009), edited From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages (2011), and pushed the envelope a little further in In Praise of Profanity (2016). Slowly but surely, I’m working on a historical glossary of restaurant jargon, tentatively called The Server’s Lexicon. I contribute to Strong Language: A Sweary Blog about Swearing.

I also focus on language attitudes and ideologies. Recently, I’ve been thinking about how the language study operates ideologically, so have written about the rhetoric and historiography of the history of English, as well as the history of the language sciences. The largest work in this category is a historical/critical edition of the classic Problems in Lexicography, which originated in a conference held at Indiana University in 1960 and which I undertook partly to celebrate IU’s recent Bicentennial. Indiana University Press will publish it in 2021. Edward Finegan and I are currently editing The Cambridge Handbook of the Dictionary, which is scheduled for publication in 2023.