Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Urban Dictionary's Day in Court

Yesterday, the New York Times highlighted the growing trend of court citations to the popular crowd-sourced definition website Urban Dictionary. Urban Dictionary is edited by its readers, who have submitted millions of definitions for contemporary slang words and phrases. The site fills the void left by traditional slang dictionaries which often take years to compile, leaving their contents already out of date by the time they arrive on bookshelves.

Courts have taken notice of this online option for defining more current slang. The Times mentions a 2010 St. John's Law Review article about citations to "consensus websites" like Urban Dictionary and Wikipedia, which noted 27 citations to Urban Dictionary in state and federal case law databases as of April 2010. A similar search by the Goodson Blogson in Westlaw today yields nearly three times as many – 68 total appearances in state and federal court opinions, as well as another 33 in administrative law decisions and materials.

Not everyone is happy about this growing trend. Some law and language scholars express concern about the reliability and accuracy of audience-edited websites. Urban Dictionary, in particular, uses a "fan vote" system to promote the most popular user-submitted definitions; however, many of the submissions are jokey and vulgar, and not necessarily accurate definitions. But even accurate definitions do not always persuade courts: in 2009, the Nevada Supreme Court balked at using Urban Dictionary to deny the registration of a vanity license plate reading "HOE," which driver William Junge chose for his Chevrolet Tahoe after "TAHOE" was no longer available. After a lawsuit by the ACLU, the court agreed that "A reasonable mind would not accept the Urban Dictionary entries alone as adequate to support a conclusion that the word 'HOE' is offensive or inappropriate" (news release and case filings via ACLU).

To locate more scholarly slang dictionaries in the Duke University Libraries, try a subject search of our catalog for "English language – Slang – Dictionaries." You'll find a mix of historical and recent publications in both print and online formats. For assistance with locating these materials, be sure to Ask a Librarian.