If we need more evidence the world is imploding on its own good misdeeds, we need look no further than the weight of the ridiculousness that the Urban Dictionary is now being used in courts of law to define colloquial phrases and to help educate judges and juries as to “meaning in the street.”

It can take years for slang terms to be included in traditional dictionaries, whose editors want to be certain that the words have staying power. By contrast, some new words rush into Urban Dictionary in less than a day. As a result, the site has cropped up in dozens of court cases in recent years, according to a Lexis database of federal and state cases, although the outcome rarely rests solely on a definition.

This trend is likely to accelerate, according to Greg Lastowka, a professor of law at Rutgers specializing in Internet and property law. “If it is Urban Dictionary or hire some linguistic expert to do a survey, it seems like a pretty cheap, pretty good alternative for the court,” he said.

In the last year alone, the Web site was used by courts to define iron (“handgun”); catfishing (“the phenomenon of Internet predators that fabricate online identities”); dap (“the knocking of fists together as a greeting, or form of respect”); and grenade (“the solitary ugly girl always found with a group of hotties”).

There’s a good reason it “takes years for slang terms” to find their way into traditional dictionaries:  There’s a scholarly vetting process in place to check, evaluate and confirm the inclusion of new words.

I am stunned the Urban Dictionary is being invoked in courts of law because I can tell you from firsthand experience the site is a joke on all of us and a pox on society — it’s Dirty Phonebook with a slightly better name.

Several years ago, when I was starting a new blog, one disaffected, constantly negative, reader of this blog decided to try to tear down the project by going to Urban Dictionary and adding an inappropriate and sexualized “definition” for my new blog based on its domain name.  Of course, because there’s no editorial oversight in place on Urban Dictionary, his “definition” became the first entry for my new blog.

I didn’t care much about that sort of reputation graffiti back then — people will always tear down what they cannot create — and Urban Dictionary was, and still is, a faux site filled with inaccuracies and foolishness.

Now, years later, the site is being used in court?  On what grounds?  Convenience?  Ineptitude?  Laziness?  It can’t be the truth.  You can’t be both a fool and a wise man unless, of course, the court allows the Urban Dictionary to actually influence the law.  Our court system is in serious disrepair if the Urban Dictionary is in any way, now a totem of justice.

What’s happening with the Urban Dictionary is almost as bad as the newest Wikipedia scandal that broke this week:

In the wee hours of the morning of January 27, 2013, a Wikipedia editor named “Qworty” made a series of 14 separate edits to the Wikipedia page for the late writer Barry Hannah, a well-regarded Southern author with a taste for the Gothic and absurd.

Qworty cut paragraphs that included quotes from Hannah’s work. He removed 20 links to interviews, obituaries and reminiscences concerning Hannah. He cut out a list of literary prizes Hannah had won.

Two edits stand out. Qworty excised the phrase “and was regarded as a good mentor” from a sentence that started: “Hannah taught creative writing for 28 years at the University of Mississippi, where he was director of its M.F.A. program …” And he changed the cause of Hannah’s death from “natural causes” to “alcoholism.” But Hannah’s obituaries stated that he had died of a heart attack and been clean and sober for years before his death, while his role as a mentor was testified to in numerous memorials. (Another editor later removed the alcoholism edit.)

I’ve never been a fan of Wikipedia — it’s just too easy to scam the crowd-sourced system and make lies appear as the truth — but that doesn’t stop people from trying to convince us that the future of our world lives in Urban Dictionary misdefinitions and Wikipedia vengeance-edited entries.

I will never be convinced that those who tear down what exists have more value than those who build new things from nothing; but the crowd is not behind me on that one, probably because the majority of us are incapable of imagination, and so the only method of change left in their fallow bag of humanity is to destroy good things just because they can, and not because it needs to be done.

Our society then becomes negatively redefined as the majority deconstructs the beautiful reality of what was and replaces it with ash; and so, something joyous and unique and new is destined — by definition of its minority creation — to not live very long, and we need to be trained to recognize the glory in the embers.


  1. I see the appeal of using a more “modern” kind of resource, but it is really surprising to me that they would reference such an informal site in a formal setting. Why wouldn’t the scholarly vetting process you mentioned be used for the inclusion of new references in courts of law too?! The whole thing seems too easy and too open to misuse.

    1. It’s definitely odd, Emily. I have a feeling the courts are of the mind that if it’s on the internets — like The Google — then it must be real and good and allowable as vetted… oh, if they only knew!

  2. so now we have the dumbing down of justice – I guess this is in effect to help the jurours – ot to connect with the jourours because our education sysyem has failed to provide more than the basic educational needs of its students.

    What I find interesting with the Urban Dictionary is that there can be up to 50 definitions of one word – depending on which “gang” uttered the pharse in the first place.

    I am all for making the law acessible and for the use of plain English or American to make it more acessible …………….. but there is something magestic, and reverent about English Law – it is spoken and written with gravitas which is how I feel it should be to retain any respect it has left.

    1. That’s an excellent point about the degradation of the process because the people who are involved in the court system and non-vetted and not as well educated as they were in the past.

      I agree the whole Urban Dictionary scene is a scam — based on nothing but noise and who can push the favored definition the hardest. Hardly a proper law resource.

      I understand these courts don’t have the money to pay for linguists to testify, but what about the cops on the street? They’re experts — at least they better be — for this sort of “urban communication.” They have to know the slang, and know it well, or they won’t get their job done on the streets; and they also won’t survive without those street smarts.

      1. I wondering the same thing surely thepolice or maybe even youth/gang outreach workers would be the people who should be doing this.

        1. Yes! You can cross-examine a person. How can you cross-examine a website? I hope neither side is just stipulating to these online definitions.

  3. @David . I would say that there is an argument that could be made for that website to enter into the category of “Hearsay” which in the UK court system is inadmissable.

    1. I agree! It is clearly hearsay. That’s why there has to be some sort of collusion between the court and the prosecution and the defense to allows its use — that’s the only way to get it into the record.

  4. so I guess it comes down to one of two things – either it is the only way to get a result by showing that the courts understand the lingo and were not predjudiced – or it saves money in some way – or both!

    1. I can’t wait until MTV’s “Teen Mom” becomes the new court-sponsored social standard for proper parenting. Oh, and why not have Superman be the new moral compass for America? Then Man of Steel can’t ever be wrong, right?

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