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Courts Turn to Online Dictionary for Nonstandard Definitions

While the wheels of justice may move too slowly for some, updates to the standard Webster’s New World Dictionary are slower still.

Court cases that involve nonstandard or insulting language often reveal a language barrier of sorts. The more conventional dictionaries in existence are not designed to keep up with the spoken word, often meaning that slang and other colloquialisms will not be found in standard print form. The result is that many lawyers and judges are relying on online sources such as Urban Dictionary to determine the more flexible meanings of some current slang words.

This online website, formed in 1999 by a college freshman, has been used in both civil and criminal cases as courts try to determine the meaning and intention behind modern slang terms. For example, an appeals case in Wisconsin recently resulted in the court rejecting a claim that a convicted felon should not have to make restitution to the owner of a stolen van used in a robbery. The decision to reject the claim was determined as a result of a review of the term “jack,” which is slang for “steal,” researched because the robber and his partner had styled themselves the “jack boys.”

Editors of traditional dictionaries will often not add slang terms until they know if the word or words will be part of the English language for any length of time, a process that can sometimes take years. However, slang terms can end up in Urban Dictionary within hours and regardless of whether they will be valid over the long haul or will prove to be a passing fad. While the slang terms are in use, however, Urban Dictionary has repeatedly been a source of popular definition in court cases at both the federal and state level over the past few years, with slang definitions adding to the body of evidence being presented.

The trend in using online sources within the courtroom is likely to increase in the near future, according to Rutgers law professor Greg Lastowka, who states that, given a choice between using Urban Dictionary or hiring a linguistic expert, the online source seems like a good cost-saving alternative for the court system. Recent cases have seen the website used by courts seeking definitions of the slang terms “iron,” “catfishing,” “dap,” and “grenade.” These are respectively defined as a handgun, a term used to describe the practice of Internet predators making up online identities, the knocking of fists together to greet or show respect, and the one girl seen as ugly in a group of otherwise pretty girls.

Skeptics of using such sources as Urban Dictionary in a courtroom setting point out that this site never claimed to be an authority on the definitive meaning of any of the slang words that appear there. In fact, probably the most surprised to learn that the site was being used in the courtroom was its founder, Aaron Peckham. He states that the site was originally created as a parody, with him and his friends making up words and definitions. As the site grew along with the Internet, global contributors added their input and grew the site into what is now – one of the most-visited websites in the U.S.

There are more than 2 million definitions currently posted on Urban Dictionary, with about 30,000 more proposed each month, although the method of determining what gets published is more democratic than scientific. According to Mr. Peckham, a definition must be voted on by at least five other site members to determine if it is publishable or not, and users can provide their own version of a definition for words that are already included in Urban Dictionary. This results in as many as 1,100 definitions for one word, making the process of determining what was meant by any given slang term challenging and open to interpretation. As definitions on Urban Dictionary are further ranked by popularity, courts may be willing to simply go with the most popular definition, which could in turn result in a misinterpretation of what was actually meant by the slang user.

Fortunately, cases are rarely decided on the basis of a slang definition alone. With the trend toward online resources on the rise in the court systems, Urban Dictionary is just one more resource available to attorneys and justices nationwide. Mr. Peckham defends its use in the court system as “logical,” saying that the means of ranking definitions by popular vote allows for democracy to demonstrate what is probably the most likely meaning of any given slang term at present. In addition, Mr. Peckham points out that the authority on language should be the people speaking it, and this is exactly the authority recognized by Urban Dictionary.

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