Law, Technology & Arts Blog

Should Courts Use Urban Dictionary to Define Slang?

Posted in Litigation, University of Washington School of Law by LTA-Editor on July 8, 2013

UD-logoBy Pedro Celis

Urban Dictionary is becoming a significant tool in the legal world. Dozens of courts have used Urban Dictionary to define slang terms not present in traditional dictionaries, federal prosecutors have used its definitions as evidence in a criminal complaint, and a law review article proposed a method for when and how courts should cite crowdsourced websites such as Urban Dictionary. Using Urban Dictionary allows courts and parties to define slang terms without relying on expensive expert witnesses. But this practice also raises some concerns. Urban Dictionary’s definitions are created by users and ranked according to the number of “up” or “down” votes they receive. They lack some of the quality control safeguards used by other crowdsourced websites such as Wikipedia. Urban Dictionary definitions cannot be edited or removed, even if they are incorrect. In contrast, Wikipedia users monitor and edit entries written by others to crowdsource quality control as well as content creation. Moreover, according to the New York Times, humor is the primary reason people vote for an Urban Dictionary entry. Thus, Urban Dictionary may be less reliable than other crowdsourced websites.

Courts use Urban Dictionary in a variety of ways. For example, in an age discrimination case, a federal district court used Urban Dictionary to define “OG” as “someone who has been around, old school gangster,” while determining whether the employer’s comments were discriminatory. In other cases, courts have used Urban Dictionary sua sponte to determine whether a prosecutor’s reference to gangs was warranted (defining the term “gangster style” as holding a gun horizontally), or to explain witness testimony (using the definition for “blunt” to explain an officer’s probable cause testimony). Courts have also defined the terms “kite,” “mugging,” “Detroit Lean,” “freaking,” “sugar free,” “jacked,” “ho,” “don’t trip,” and “shoulder tap” using Urban Dictionary.

When courts determine whether to use an Urban Dictionary definition, they must weigh its reliability. Some courts have used the popularity of a definition as an indication of its accuracy. For example, the South Carolina Court of Appeals noted the number of “up” votes and “down” votes when it used Urban Dictionary to define an “iron” as a “gat, peice [sic], heat, or any kind of handgun.”

Despite its flaws, Urban Dictionary is gaining acceptance in court. Although a few courts have rejected Urban Dictionary as unreliable, at least one federal circuit court has used Urban Dictionary’s definitions. And courts have used Urban Dictionary in a wide variety of cases, including Title VII employment discrimination, criminal assault, and trademark infringement cases. As a result, practitioners may want to familiarize themselves with Urban Dictionary, because it looks like they will need to argue for or against the reliability of its definitions sooner or later.

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