Law and Order and Urban Dictionary

That crowdsourced compilation of online slang you probably know is becoming a go-to resource for the courts. Is this reasonable, or terrible?

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Urban Dictionary, a site launched in 1999 by Aaron Peckham when he was a college freshman, is a crowdsourced compilation of, currently, more than 7 million definitions of an array of slang and other terms. You can refer to the site for information (buyer beware) and add new words or new definitions of your own to it; that's some of the point. As the tagline for the site explains, "Urban Dictionary is the dictionary you write. Define your world." And so, a definition for, say, LOL, will extend well past one and into the hundreds, while a new word — take actulutely, added May 20, "a cross between actually and absolutely" — might have only one entry. For now.

Urban Dictionary has long been used by people of the Internet, whether they're in search of actual definitions, hoping to create their own, or in the pursuit of making a joke. But it's also got an interesting real-world use, as Leslie Kaufman writes in The New York Times. Since conventional dictionaries don't always include the latest in slang terminology, lawyers and judges are looking to define language in court cases by turning to Urban Dictionary. "The online site ... has found itself in the thick of cases involving everything from sexual harassment to armed robbery to requests for personalized license plates, as courts look to discern meaning and intent in the modern lexicon," writes Kaufman. In separate cases, words like jack ("to steal") and to nut ("to ejaculate") were referenced in Urban Dictionary by the courts, which in the first instance "rejected the convicted man’s claim that he should not have to make restitution to the owner of a van he stole to use in a robbery" and in the second "rejected a motion to dismiss a sexual harassment claim by female employees." Other words the courts have sought to define on the site are iron, catfishing, dap, and grenade.

Because of the speed with which words can and do appear in Urban Dictionary, and the opposite speed with which they'll arrive in the more formal books, "the site has cropped up in dozens of court cases in recent years." It's predicted that this trend will pick up (using Urban Dictionary is cheap and easy, just like the Internet) though some are concerned about what this might mean. Caution is urged when consulting Urban Dictionary. The site is not without its own procedure, however: For a new definition to be added at least five other site members have to vote for it, and "some two-thirds of proposals are rejected, Mr. Peckham estimates." Definitions are also often disputed; the order they appear in is based on popularity.

Tom Dalzell, senior editor of The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, called Urban Dictionary "a lazy person’s resource," and Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large for the Oxford English Dictionary, reminds us that popularity does not a definition make. A definition might have a Number 1 ranking simply because someone made a good joke. No one should go to jail for that.

Of course, a resource is only a resource, and a conviction based purely on a definition that appears in a dictionary, whether it's Urban or not, seems to be a poor set-up for any kind of justice. In fact, as Kaufman writes, "the outcome rarely rests solely on a definition." Formal lexicographers know well that traditional dictionaries are there to enlighten and reveal, not to themselves decree or lay down the law. As Merriam-Webster's Kory Stamper explained to me in March, "Unfortunately, dictionaries will not explain the essential nature of a thing, or tell you what something is; instead, they tell you how the word for that thing is used in a variety of contexts." The courts have to do the rest of the work themselves.

Image via Shutterstock by zimmytws.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.