Urban Dictionary: The Folly of Crowds

An encounter with the man behind the web’s ‘go-to lexicon’ leads Jonathon to wonder whether the very nature of dictionary-making is under threat…

Other than in his own adopted third persona, and the occasional reference to Mr Meades who is a friend as well as a minor deity (a fact currently echoed in seemingly every medium) Mr Slang does not drop names. It is time to make an exception. An exception that I would suggest is mitigated by the fact that the name in question – assuming that I assess the Dabbler demographic with reasonable accuracy – will fall with a pretty soft thud. So: I had that Aaron Peckham in the back of my cab the other day. Or to be more precise, I had that Aaron Peckham at the other end of table at a slang conference I attended a couple of weeks ago. Bells unrung? Look him up. No, I’ll tell you; Mr Peckham is the sole progenitor, the one-man originator, the fons et origo of the Urban Dictionary (http://www.urbandictionary.com). The Urban Dictionary, which urges contributors ‘define your world’ and at a rate of 2,000 neologisms  a day has amassed some 6,763,429 definitions (at time of writing) since its founding in 1999, , is currently the Internet’s go-to lexicon. At least in the realm of fresh-minted terminology. It began life as a slang dictionary, slang being a loose synonym of ‘urban’ when it comes to language, but that adjective has been dropped. Journalists, some say of the lazier sort, adore it. It is regularly quoted. It is, unlike products a good nearer Mr Slang’s home, seriously down with the kidz. Indeed it is created by the kidz. Some 6.7 million hits-worth of kidz each and every month even if of every thousand users, only one offers up a new word. How can we not stand in awe.

We do. I do. I stand not just in awe, since as I must have said before, size matters in lexicography, but also at one side – the wrong side, naturally – of a generational abyss. No mere gap but a bottomless pit. If I represent one aspect of slang lexicography, the traditionalists who model themselves on the OED, then Mr Peckham’s legions, the majority of whom are aged 14-25, represent the antithesis. I am looking at the end, they have barely essayed the beginning. Mr P. is a charming young man (he is 31) and he was gratifyingly tolerant of us old folk.  I admire his enterprise. Like many Internet creators he has conjured something substantial where once stood nothing at all. He funds the project through ads, but resists the many dubious supplicants – often politicians or tacky and not so tacky merchandisers – who offer him rewards for turning over UD to their exploitation. He founded the site to stand against what he saw as old people’s hegemony of definition: why should you tell us what we say means? It is a good Sixties conceit, the sort that underpinned the underground press for which I laboured. He maintains his position and thus his credibility. I like his style.

But awe is one thing, intellectual trust is quite another. Credibility is admirable but nebulous: my problems lie in the concrete. If it cannot provide authority, what is left to the dictionary? Spelling is simply not enough. If its definitions cannot offer some form of accuracy, of ‘truth’, then what is their purpose? The dictionary is a tool, the tool should do its job and the job is providing information one can trust. It may err, but it is hoped that these are errors of omission not commission. Like Dragnet’s Joe Friday the lexicographer aims for ‘the facts, just the facts’. New facts, of course, may overturn their predecessors, especially in the sphere of dating, which can always be pushed back a decade or more. Thus the traditional lexicon.

The Urban Dictionary does not, let us be quite blunt, give a fuck for all that. Look up an entry. See how it works. Here is a definition. Now here is another, and another and yet others too. They may jibe with one another, they may not. They may contradict. All that differentiates them are a pair of icons: thumbs up and thumbs down. One can see by the appended numbers which definition the UD-ers  prefer. But other than by checking the respective counts (and ‘downs’ may challenge ‘ups’ quite closely even in what those of us who still trade in such value judgments might see as the ‘right’ definition) there is no verdict. Merely the varied opinions of the UD crowd. Far from playing the traditional dictionary it is relativism epitomised. All are qualified, all are welcome, there is no comment, and defining is free. Like the Internet of which it plays a part, no-one has the right to mount a platform and dictate. Or if they do, no-one will listen. One might call it the wisdom of the crowd. One might call it the country of the blind, without even a one-eyed man to be king.

I railed at Mr Peckham on this account. I asked, and I was not alone, merely the most vociferous, how could he term his website a dictionary when by every standard it is patently no such thing. He was quite candid. The term dictionary gave the website authority; the fact that it was consciously pitted against the traditional variants of that authority was a paradox which he fully appreciated. He had no intention of abandoning that useful noun.

Later, we were drinking, I part apologised. What he heard from me, I explained (though he had doubtless worked it out unaided) were the words of a frightened old man who had glimpsed the future and found it shocking. The earth was moving and not in what a punster would term a Hemingway. The old man seemed to have no place in the new world and his feet no longer held him steady on a shifting terrain. His life, his work – and he had long since given up attempting to differentiate between the two – were under threat. Or maybe not even under threat, merely by-passed by the rush of a new, younger, otherwise focussed crowd.

I have wondered who will succeed me in the slang lex. world. It is half a millennium old; surely it is not due for extinction. It may be that my answer lies in Mr Peckham and the Urban Dictionary, with its non-judgmental acceptance, its all-encompassing welcome for both contributors and language, its prizes – inclusion – for merely turning up. It may well be. But I hope, I do really hope, that it is not.

image ©Gabriel Green
You can buy Green’s Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon’s more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.
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About Author Profile: Jonathon Green

Jonathon 'Mr Slang' Green is the world's leading lexicographer of English slang. You can buy Green's Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon's more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.

12 thoughts on “Urban Dictionary: The Folly of Crowds

  1. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    September 27, 2012 at 10:24

    Unfortunately Jonathon, oh ye of the dying breed, the internet has now spawned itself, it trawls for the trawlers. In the style of all true fantasy it turns fiction into fact, large chunks of it exist in a world of absolutes. Absolute ephemera.

    “Let him think that I am more man than I am and I will be so.” Said the old man, as he sat at the shore by the nand gate.

    Or, as Jack Nicholson once said “ah, the internet, so much porn, so little time.”

  2. Lucyham@bigpond.com'
    September 27, 2012 at 10:34

    UD provides a wonderful service for the old. The evanescent existence of modern cant is such that it won’t hold still long enough to be trapped within pages.

    It allows someone as old as me to keep up with the meaning of teens surrounding me at home and work, even in the far reaches of the slang-generating world, away from the American centre.

    It has the added bonus of being without images. If a young person sends one in search of a great recipe for blue waffles, it is clear from his disingenuous manner that this is a case for the image-free UD. “What is seen cannot be unseen” as they tell me.

  3. Worm
    September 27, 2012 at 12:57

    You have reminded me JG that I once submitted a word to UD, I’ve just been off to have a look 6 years later and found that some scoundrels have voted it down. My ego is dented. Thus I wholeheartedly endorse your campaign of resistance. Down with UD!! ¡Viva el Hombre Slang!

  4. Brit
    September 27, 2012 at 20:35

    But it will never replicate your scholarship, citations, cultural and historical context… not time to despair yet, I’d say. I’ve always thought of UD as more or less an extension of the Viz Profanisaurus.

    with its non-judgmental acceptance, its all-encompassing welcome for both contributors and language, its prizes – inclusion – for merely turning up. We’re getting into Wittgenstein’s private language territory here….

  5. Wormstir@gmail.com'
    September 27, 2012 at 22:13

    UD is the ‘beta’ for slang. The words on there are only prototypes until they come to the attention of Mr Slang, at which point they are baptised and officially exist

  6. rmacey@luc.edu'
    September 27, 2012 at 22:58

    Though part of the UD’s fun is its complete lack of authority. One just has to approach it in a playful spirit–i.e. this might, God help me, actually put me on the trace of X-word’s real meaning.

    But anything with less quality control than Wikipedia is never going to replace scholarship.

    By the by, see this column on swearing from a cognitive psychology perspective? Should be up your alley.

  7. george.jansen55@gmail.com'
    September 28, 2012 at 00:49

    ” The evanescent existence of modern cant is such that it won’t hold still long enough to be trapped within pages.”

    Isn’t that the whole point of cant? And the expression “American centre” is one that Noah Webster would not honor.

    Slang is difficult. I thought that “flivver” meant an old car, and so I gather did Eric Partridge. Raymond Chandler, in a letter that discusses Partridge’s dictionary of slang, says that in his experience a flivver could only be a Ford. A fellow I worked with in 1975 said that in north Denver a wedgie could also be known as a “George”. I spent a number of years not far from where he grew up, and knew various persons who had delivered and received wedgies, but never heard any term other than “wedgie”. I am prepared to swear a might oath that in the Cleveland suburbs about 50 years ago a “Scotch whistle” was the sound that a straw makes in a container when the liquid is exhausted. Nobody I ever asked later professed to have heard the term.

    I think that there is certainly a place for the lexicographer, if only to keep the reader from being fooled by the inventive and shameless, who will offer as common speech their own coinages.

  8. john.hh43@googlemail.com'
    John Halliwell
    September 28, 2012 at 07:03

    ‘There’s only one JG!’ They should chant it at football matches, especially at Stamford bridge. They should sing it before every Lords’ Test match in place of Jerusalem. It should form part of every conductor’s speech during the Last Night of the Proms. It should be included in the Queen’s Speech and repeated in unison by both Houses. A place must be found in Poets Corner of the great Abbey: ‘Here lies Mr Slang in his pine overcoat; in his 93rd year he pegged it; he croaked’. I suppose I could go on but then it might start to get silly. When a new list of National treasures is compiled JG must be on it; now that’s not silly.

  9. Gaw
    September 28, 2012 at 08:22

    “Aaron Peckham”? I bet his real name is something like Julian Dulwich.

    • jgslang@gmail.com'
      September 28, 2012 at 10:52

      No. Peckham it is. Indeed he had heard of ‘our’ Peckham and wondered what it might be like. I suggested that he resist a personal excursion.

  10. info@shopcurious.com'
    September 28, 2012 at 11:40

    I’d like to be a fly on the wall at a slang shindig. What sort of things are discussed? The mind boggles…

    • jgslang@gmail.com'
      September 28, 2012 at 14:17

      As far as I recall there were two big questions: does it exist and can we define it. Were I to reveal our answers I would unfortunately be hauled screaming before the committee of the Grand Coesre and Cock Lorel (16th century founders respectively of the French and English branches of the language), and almost certainly have something distasteful done to my database. Yet truth must out: at times we decided yes. And then again, no. Mr Peckham, of course, abstained.

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