“Trout: a man who likes to date younger women (i.e. he swims downstream in age); antonym—salmon: a guy who likes to date older women, or who swims upstream in age.” Believe it or not, the definitions of bizarre slang terms like this one are being utilized by the courts in many cases, from criminal trials to defamation disputes.
In one particular lawsuit, the plaintiff, a finance professional in the Baltimore, MD area sued a gossip website for defamation. One of the many allegedly libelous statements made about him was that “Trouts needa watch their mouth.” Unsure whether this comment was defamatory in nature, the court consulted a source that has become more common in recent years: Urban Dictionary.
The site, which currently receives 100 million monthly page views and contains more than 2.3 million definitions, was created in 1999 by a college freshman who thought it was fun to make up words with his friends.
Urban Dictionary provides a compilation of slang terms along with their often-varying definitions. It is a crowdsourced site—akin to Wikipedia—meaning that the online community creates and uploads its content. The site, which currently receives 100 million monthly page views and contains more than 2.3 million definitions, was created in 1999 by Aaron Peckham, then a college freshman, who thought it was fun to make up words with his friends. Users rank the terms and definitions, and the site shows an ongoing count of the thumbs up or thumbs down votes.
The site’s tagline is: “Urban Dictionary is the definition you write. Define your world.” And while it may be an entertaining forum for creative minds to craft novel words and corresponding definitions, many question its place in the courtroom, citing concerns of unreliability and inconsistency. On a crowdsourced site that receives 30,000 proposed definitions monthly, many of which are insensitive and obscene, problems of transience and misinterpretation abound.
Slang is inherently informal and nonstandard, which makes the task of defining the words that have actually made their way into “common” usage difficult.
Slang is inherently informal and nonstandard, which makes the task of defining the words that have actually made their way into “common” usage difficult. For example, the word “crunk,” which is fairly common and broadly defined as an adjective meaning “lively,” has 332 different definitions on the site. They range from “a mixture of crazy and drunk” to “the past tense of ‘to crank’” to a “Crunk-Car” created by Dr. Seuss in the book “Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now!” to a music style originating from Southern hip-hop.
Even though many Urban Dictionary contributors make legitimate efforts to define slang, some merely make up their own words not (yet) in common use, such as bropocalypse or carcolepsy. Others generate their own alternative definition to well-known terms purely for comedic purposes. For example, the top-ranked definition for “Nascar” is “ Turning left in a Chevrolet for 4 hours.”
According to CEO Peckham, the site intentionally provides “a lot of provably false information. It’s supposed to be entertaining.”
Tom Dalzell, senior editor of The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, contends that using Urban Dictionary in court is a “terrible idea.” Although Dalzell acknowledged in a recent New York Times article that some of the content on the site is reliable, he suggests that “there is more chaff than wheat” and that the site is a “lazy person’s resource.” While Dalzell makes a valid point about the inconsistent quality of the site’s definitions, it is hard to beat the speed at which Urban Dictionary users publish slang that is sometimes ephemeral. This is especially pronounced when compared to the years that it takes traditional dictionaries to authenticate and publish such terms.
Because slang is popularly defined in the first place, perhaps a website that ranks terms by popular vote will reveal a democratic truth as to how the word is actually used.
Beyond the advantage of speed, it seems that there is no better source for definitions than the people creating and/or disseminating the slang. Proponents of allowing the site’s definitions in court argue that because language is popularly defined in the first place, a website that ranks terms by popular vote will reveal a democratic truth as to how the word is actually used. This theory is weakened by the fact that many users reward creative users with votes for the funniest definitions, regardless of their accuracy. For example, the top-ranked definition for “dead” is “Britney Spears’s career.”
Moreover, supporters argue, what is the harm of bringing a term’s purported definition into evidence when the opposing attorney can illuminate its unreliability? After all, that is one of the central tenets of the rules of evidence.
In situations involving Spanish-to English interpreters who are not familiar with slang from every Spanish country, Urban Dictionary can save large amounts of time and resources.
On the other hand, cultural and language barriers further complicate the issues when users either submit definitions for foreign slang terms or submit a foreign interpretation of an American slang term. Considering that just under fifty percent of the site’s views originate from the U.S., socio-cultural distinctions certainly have an impact on interpretations.
Nevertheless, the site has proven quite useful in defining foreign slang terms, the meanings of which may change depending on the nationality of the speaker. For example, a federal district court in Texas used the site in a 2012 employment discrimination action to define “guanaco,” which a Mexican employee called her Salvadoran supervisor. Guanaco is a South American animal similar to a llama, but Urban Dictionary revealed to the court that it is also a racially charged slur for a Salvadoran woman. Since most Spanish-to-English interpreters are not familiar with slang from every Spanish-speaking country, Urban Dictionary can save time and resources in cases requiring interpretation of slang specific to certain nationalities.
Searching for terms on Urban Dictionary is quick and certainly cheaper than hiring a linguistics expert or interpreter for trial. And when the court is using the site to define terms like “jungle juice” (an alcoholic mixture), “word” (term used to represent a concurrence), or “kicks” (shoes), attorneys are not likely to dispute the court taking judicial notice of the fact under FRE 201. However, when the court uses the site to define terms involving the commencement of a crime or an implement, such as “jammy” (handgun) or chronic (high-quality marijuana), the court’s use of the source becomes controversial. At that point, FRE 403 is an attorney’s best friend, as Urban Dictionary definitions can assuredly be a source of confusion and be prejudicial to a party when considering the context.
Fortunately for the driver, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled 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.”
As the use of Urban Dictionary in court becomes more common and the number of words and definitions on the site grow, one has to wonder where the line will be drawn. In 2009, a Nevada resident was denied the personalized license plate “HOE” by the Department of Motor Vehicles because Urban Dictionary defined the term as “a prostitute.” The inconspicuous 62-year-old driver had initially desired the already-taken plate “TAHOE” in honor of his Chevrolet Tahoe. Fortunately for him, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled 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.”
While Urban Dictionary serves an important purpose in a society full of slang here one day and gone the next; that variability also creates concerns of inconsistency and unreliability, features that we aim to eliminate from the courtroom. But when those terms are undefined elsewhere, making Urban Dictionary the only source providing any sort of popular consensus as to the definition, why not consult it? Modern courts should take advantage of the sources available to them, especially when they are free.