What started out as an Internet parody turned into the real thing. In 1998 Aaron Peckham, a freshman computer science major at California Polytechnic State University, thought the web site Dictionary.com was too rigid, formal, and stodgy.
He launched Urban Dictionary (www.urbandictionary.com) as the anti-dictionary, specializing in definitions for slang, the vernacular, and neologisms--words that contributors make up that you won’t find in The Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary. Rather than being serious, Peckham’s dictionary would stress the irreverent.
In just a couple of years, Urban Dictionary took off and has created quite a stir. Since 1999, it has defined nearly six million words (it updates that number daily on the site). For example, one recent definition explained “Freudian click” as “sending a love note to an ex instead of a current loved one.” The rise of gay marriages and civil unions triggered “Engayed,” defined as what happens when gay couples decide to marry. “Mouse potatoes” are people who spend their lives on computers, like couch potatoes who watch TV.
Urban Dictionary attracts half a million individual visitors daily. Each day it adds 2,000 new words and definitions to its archive. Peckham told the Times Free Press (http://timesfreepress.com/) that it has morphed into “documenting the vocabulary of everyday life.” But he sees the site as going beyond slang. In his view, Urban Dictionary presents a subjective slant on popular culture. Popular culture includes celebrities, politicians, and trends.
For example, when Tom Cruise started jumping madly up and down on Oprah’s sofa, it led to “jump the couch,” defined as when a person finally realizes they have gone over the deep end. Of course, that expression plays off of Henry Winkler’s (in the Happy Days TV sitcom, 1974-1984) coining of “jump the shark,” describing something that has been very popular, reached its apex, and is now declining.
Nor does the site avoid politics. For example, “the palin” is defined as “an applicant lacking even basic skills or someone who is supremely lacking self-awareness of what he/she doesn’t know.” And “Obama” is described as “has no real definition but check back in four years to see if a consensus has been formed.”
In many ways, the site has evolved on its own. Peckham didn’t have a set plan of what he wanted it to accomplish. Users enjoyed coming up with their own definitions and gravitated toward writing humorous and edgy definitions. Its growth was organic and natural rather than predetermined.
Veracity and truthfulness are not the mission of this web site. Peckham said that the site doesn’t require definitions to be objective or truthful. Many definitions exaggerate the truth to make a point, often a humorous one.
Ironically, a court case in the United Kingdom in 2001 catapulted Urban Dictionary into the limelight. A judge was handling a court case involving two rappers, but he was having a hard time understading the use of slang and the vernacular. The judge looked up the words on Urban Dictionary and returned the next day saying he now understood what they were discussing. A British reporter wrote a feature story on the incident, which was then picked up by American papers. Urban Dictionary was on the map.
The site is organized into Word of the Day, Names, Dictionary, and My City. Under Dictionary, words are listed in alphabetical order, and in the search box readers can plug in any words that they want to look up.
The My City section is often funny and self-deprecating about each urban area. For example, you know you’re a New Yorker when: 1) You think Central Park is “nature”; 2) You see nothing odd about the speed of an auctioneer’s speaking; 3) You pay $1200 for a studio apartment the size of a walk-in closet and think it’s a bargain; 4) The favorite part of your automobile is the horn; 5) You only saw stars in the night when you went to camp as a kid; 6) Your closet is filled with black clothes.
Urban Dictionary operates like Wikipedia in that a board of 600 volunteers reviews each submission and determines whether or not it fits for the site. It has no definitive guidelines for what is published and Peckham hints that it’s often a very subjective determination. The site prohibits using any racial or sexual slander, slurs, or words inciting violence but includes plenty of profanity. “If it looks plausible and meets those guidelines, it’s publishable,” Peckham said.
The site’s popularity has led to Peckham writing two books: Urban Dictionary: Fularious Street Slang Defined and Mo’ Urban Dictionary. For those who haven’t looked at Urban Dictionary, “fularious” is defined as “the intensifier of hilarious, merging funny and hilarious.”
Gary M. Stern is a freelance writer based in New York City.