In 1999, Aaron Peckham, a computer science student, decided he wanted to have fun with words. He started Urbandictionary.com . It looked exactly like Dictionary.com , the difference being that all the definitions were funny and written by Peckham and his friends. It snowballed. Youngsters from around the world started contributing words and definitions. With 18 million visitors a month (as of November) and 4.4 million submitted definitions, Urban Dictionary (UD) is the biggest linguistic phenomenon of the decade.
Defining moments: (top) Obama; and 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. Photographs: MSgt Cecilio Ricardo / Wikimedia Commons and AFP
For those unfamiliar with the site, it offers its own definition: “A place formerly used to find out about slang, and now a place that teens with no life use as a burn book to whine about celebrities, their friends, etc., let out their sexual frustrations, show off their racist/sexist/homophobic/anti-religion opinions, and babble about things they know nothing about.” Peckham talks about a generation defining itself. Edited excerpts:
When did UD change from being a parody to a more accepted slang dictionary?
In spirit, UD is still a parody of a real dictionary. It looks like a reference, but its entries are unresearched and strongly opinionated—I think that’s what makes it so interesting. But the change from emulating Dictionary.com’s appearance to having a recognizable UD logo and style happened around 2003.
What do you feel about including slang in serious dictionaries?
If a word is in use, I think its definition should be available. If you hear a word on the street, or read it on the Internet, you need a reference that will explain it. I think it’s great when regular dictionaries add slang words.
We recently removed the word “slang” from the front page text that describes UD’s mission. It used to say “Urban Dictionary is the slang dictionary you wrote,” and now it says “Urban Dictionary is the dictionary you wrote.” I think that’s closer to UD’s real use—it documents language as it’s really used, whether or not you call the words “slang”. For example, UD has definitions for normal words like cereal and smile. UD’s different from other dictionaries because its entries are written by normal people, whether they’re slang or not.
How do you think UD makes language more democratic?
Language is owned by the people who speak it—if a dictionary has an alternate spelling or meaning than what your friends use, that doesn’t mean your expression is invalid. UD tries to keep up with that by allowing anyone to write definitions. Readers can vote on which definition is best, and that one rises to the top. So the first definition on every page is the most popular one.
Do you try to ensure that the words in UD are relevant to people of other cultures as well?
I try to make UD accessible to everyone, but it only focuses on English definitions for now. Some headwords are written in other languages, but the definitions are in English. The process to get a word published involves a panel of randomly selected volunteers, and those volunteers can be from around the world. So hopefully UD reflect how English is used anywhere it’s spoken.
Has any word in UD created a controversy?
UD has a lot of controversial words. One that’s attracted a lot of attention recently is “teabagger”. I’ve gone to court a few years ago when UD worked with the American Civil Liberties Union as a plaintiff in a case regarding free speech on the Internet.
UD defines my name as “everything good”, “very strong marijuana”, and “another way to call a Chinese delivery boy”.
That’s great! I want people to find entertaining definitions on UD. When I first started UD I thought I could control what it was used for. But because it’s so open, and so many people use it, it’s been used for things I never imagined—like defining people’s first names.
How do you feel about a decade of tracking slang words?
Thanks to the Internet, language is growing faster than ever now. And it will continue to grow faster in future, and I hope UD will be there to document it.
Phenomenon of the next decade that you want an apt phrase for.
It’s hard to predict what we’ll need a phrase for. A month ago, no one would have guessed we’d need the phrase “tiger’s wife mad” to describe “the act of being so angry at someone that you find the item they cherish most and beat them with it”. I’ll be on the lookout for words to describe new everyday phenomena though, and I’ll be featuring them on UD’s front page.
Aaron Peckham picks his favourite Urban Dictionary definitions
• Wait, shit: What someone would say after realizing what they just said or did was idiotic.
• Joke insurance: When two guys have an understanding to laugh at each other’s jokes, no matter how lame the said joke is, therefore lessening the social failure of the joke.
• Niteflix: Dreams so complex in plot and rich in production value that they seem like feature-length films.
• Rescue chip: A rescue chip is the chip used to fish bits of the first one that broke in the dip.
• Procrasturbating: Using masturbation to otherwise occupy yourself while pressing matters await.
• Bad economy: An all-purpose excuse that people use during a recession to justify doing things that are below their standard.
• Cash pedal: The accelerator pedal in your car during times of high petrol prices.
• Life password: The password you use for every website.
• I’mma let you finish: Obnoxious way to interrupt someone and steal their moment. Based on Kanye West’s infamous interruption of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, when West cut the teen singer off, grabbed the microphone and protested in support of Beyoncé.
• Heening: Behaving like an attention grabber. Name taken from the Heene family, whose balloon boy hoax tricked the entire world on 16 October.