What once was restricted to Wikipedia, the scholarly source, has now extended to a research tool with potentially less integrity. In a recent piece, the New York Times reports on the growing use of urbandictionary.com as a dictionary of slang and colloquialisms legitimate enough for reference in official court opinions. As official, print dictionaries like Websters and the OED lag behind the parlance of our times, Urban Dictionary maintains an up to date, peer-reviewed list of common words.
Uses of Urban Dictionary, started in 1999 by founder Aaron Peckham from his college dorm, include last month’s Wisconsin opinion where the court sought to determine what was meant by two suspected robbers who referred to themselves as the “jack boys.” A court in Tennessee sought to define what a manager accused of sexual harassment by an employee meant when using the phrase “to nut.”
Prior to the inception of Urban Dictionary, courts would hire linguists to conduct surveys of the population to determine what was meant by a slang term, not found in any traditional dictionary. Now, anyone can provide a definition for a word, whether original or not, which must be approved by five other site users before appearing on the site.
While Rutgers law professor Greg Lastowka anticipates that the use of Urban Dictionary will become more prevalent, Peckham points to the inherent problem with using his site as a traditional dictionary:
[P]rivate analyses the site has conducted show that “funny” is the No. 1 reason people give for voting for posts.
Whether courts will take into account the demographics of the users of the site or that anyone and four of their friends can skew results remains to be seen. YOLO.