Urban Dictionary, as you may know, is a crowdsourced website where anyone can suggest a new word—or a new definition of a word—years before establishment lexicographers catch on. It was founded in 1999 by computer science student Aaron Peckham to make fun of the comparatively staid Dictionary.com. Yet Urban Dictionary has become much more than a parody site, drawing approximately 65 million visitors every month.
Of course, Urban Dictionary is also a repository of adolescent grossout humor, often humor about sexual practices that are the stuff of urban legends (uh, penis McFlurry?). This isn’t just a matter of trifling but ultimately harmless terms. Bigoted words and definitions have thrived on the site, but Peckham believes that offensive words should be left intact. It’s clear from a quick browse through the trending terms that the users are particularly titillated by (or nervous about) women’s bodies (e.g., twatopotamus) and sex between men (e.g., vaginal intolerant).
With its crowdsourced definitions and high speed of coinage, Urban Dictionary is very much a product of the internet age. But it also continues a long history of recording low-brow language: dictionaries of English slang have been around in some form for centuries. The slang dictionaries of the seventeenth century were considered useful for clueing readers into the language of thieves and cheats, which itself was part of an older tradition of exoticizing the language of the poor and criminal. By 1785, Francis Grose’s Classic Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue extended the slang lexicon beyond the middle-class conception, adding terms such as bum fodder (for toilet paper).
Urban Dictionary carries this legacy forward, and the site is likely to persist in some form. The Library of Congress now archives it. Its pages were saved to the Internet Archive more than 12,500 times between May 25, 2002, and October 4, 2019, with a steady increase over time. And according to internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch’s much-touted new book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language: “IBM experimented with adding Urban Dictionary data to its artificial intelligence system Watson, only to scrub it all out again when the computer started swearing at them.”
The stakes are increasing as well. Urban Dictionary is being used to determine the acceptability of vanity plate names in some U.S. states. More serious is the continued tradition of dictionary use in legal cases, where the interpretation of a single word can have grave consequences. Urban Dictionary’s definition of to nut, for instance, has been brought up in a sexual harassment claim, and the meanings of jack were debated in a financial restitution case. While Urban Dictionary’s speed may be useful in a legal setting, some lexicologists believe that depending on a crowdsourced dictionary is risky.
Linguists Open the Urban Dictionary
Whatever we might think of its vulgarity, Urban Dictionary is useful. It allows researchers to track terms that are too recent or too niche to appear in establishment dictionaries, and to determine how people are using English online.
For example, one 2006 paper by communication expert Jean E. Fox Tree uses Urban Dictionary, along with other examples of “public dictionary websites” (like Wikipedia and Answers.com), to excavate the uses of like in storytelling. And Urban Dictionary is regularly cited as a source in linguistics research, such as a 2015 paper by Natasha Shrikant on Indian American students.
McCulloch finds Urban Dictionary useful for mapping chronology, due to the datestamps attached to definitions, especially for the period in the early 2000s, before social media sites became behemoths.
Derek Denis, a linguistics researcher at the University of Toronto, agrees that the datestamp function is useful. The other key aspect, he points out, is the use of Urban Dictionary to unearth indexical meanings, or the social meanings of words. For him, the first example that comes to mind is the interjection eh. Urban Dictionary, unlike more formal dictionaries, mentions the Canadian association early and often.
In Denis’ research into Toronto’s multiethnic slang, he’s used Urban Dictionary to find the earliest documented use of terms like mans/manz, meaning “I.” The wide-ranging, youth-oriented website might seem especially well-suited for recording this kind of multiethnolect: a dialect that draws from multiple ethnic groups, typically spoken by young people, and often stigmatized or dismissed. An example is Multicultural London English, sometimes oversimplified as “Jafaican,” for “fake Jamaican.” But Denis believes that Urban Dictionary’s applicability is broader: “It’s generally useful for not just young people and multiethnic areas but general for any speech community,” he says.
Not Exactly the Wild West
A 2010 paper by the linguist Lauren Squires suggests that, despite Urban Dictionary’s anarchic reputation, it can reproduce the idea of a division between proper and improper language, with internet language being deemed socially unacceptable. Squires gives the examples of chatspeak, defined by one user as “[a] disgrace to the English language,” and netspeak, called “[a]n easy way to determine the IQ of the person you are talking to over the Internet.”
In other words, some Urban Dictionary contributors appear to be conservatively guarding a notion of a pure (print) version of English, even though language purists consider the site itself to be a key source of corruption. But maybe this isn’t as paradoxical as it seems. It may be that the site has become a linguistic sewer because certain users feel emboldened by the format, allowing them to use (or coin) terms they wouldn’t in a more formal setting.
Urban Dictionary’s bias toward obnoxiousness might make it less a repository of slang and more a collection of a specific kind of internet immaturity. As McCulloch writes in Because Internet: “There seems to be a correlation between how genuinely popular a word is and how much Urban Dictionary’s definition writers despise it and the people who use it.”
Are its contributors just pranking would-be scholars attempting to use the site for anything other than gleeful entertainment? Well, surely some are trying to. An alternative Urban Dictionary definition of manz, “part man and part zebra,” might stem only from the cackling imagination of a single user. Researchers may need to tread carefully, particularly given that young men are overrepresented on the site.
But linguists like Denis aren’t too concerned. The premise of Urban Dictionary is that a term, however jokey or quirky, doesn’t need to be popular to be worthy of recording. In Denis’ view, it just needs to be understood by at least two people. He says that “it’s probably not completely idiosyncratic. It’s probably not just limited to that one person, but rather, it might just be that person and like two or three friends. But the important thing there is that those few people—
maybe it’s two people—still form a speech community.”
In fact, the lack of restrictions, a style guide, or a core arbiter in Urban Dictionary means that “things can come out more explicitly” compared to conventional dictionaries, Denis believes. “I think the Urban Dictionary model is probably more representative because it doesn’t rely on that authority.”
It’s been argued that the now 20-year-old Urban Dictionary has become something of a fogey itself (if internet years are like dog years, the website is ancient). Newer websites and social media platforms may be even more responsive to language trends, possibly leaving Urban Dictionary in a middle ground: not as immediate as Twitter, not as specific as Know Your Meme, not as respected as Merriam-Webster, not as credible as Wikipedia, and not as popular as Reddit. But for now, linguists are digging through Urban Dictionary to track, date, and analyze language, no matter how niche or nasty, as it’s actually used.