Does DIY spell RIP for the OED?
In praise of urban dictionaries
Once scholars agonised for years over additions to language. Now, online dictionaries enable instant updates
The other week Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the South Park creators, told the audience of the Late Show With David Letterman about the time they decided to go to the Academy Awards in drag. They had gone to the trouble of getting copies made of Oscar gowns previously worn by Gwyneth Paltrow (for Stone) and Jennifer Lopez (for Parker). But when the day arrived, they got cold feet. “We had a limo and we had people doing our makeup and it was, ‘Oh, let’s not do this’,” Parker told the Letterman audience. Yet later on the afternoon of the big day, history records them on the red carpet, hairy chests on display under knock-off Ralph Lauren and Versace. Somehow they had found the courage.
“We did some Charlie Sheening and we were fine,” Parker explained.
“We were just sheening our heads off,” agreed Stone.
It got a big laugh, and social media went to work. “Apparently sheening is a new verb,” tweeted one viewer. “The new name for wasted,” wrote another. In fact the new name for wasted had already been recorded three months earlier by Urban Dictionary: the online open source directory of slang phrases and neologisms. Sheening, it says, is “. . . an alcohol and blow extravaganza, sometimes ending in a hospital stay and/or death. Referencing the amazing behaviour of the actor Charlie Sheen.”
“Sheening” was not the only example of slang to make the news recently. Days after the South Park pair appeared on TV, The Oxford English Dictionary published its latest online update. Included for the first time were the internet-era initialisms OMG, BFF and LOL. Sexting was in there; as were Wags and muffin top (“referring to a protuberance of flesh above the waistband of a tight pair of trousers cf spare tyre, love handle”).
“Someone wrote that the OED finally thinking muffin top worthy of including was a bit disturbing,” says Urban Dictionary’s founder, Aaron Peckham, from his home in California. “Like your dad suddenly deciding that ‘whassup!’ was worthy of repeated, loud public use.”
Now, you are unlikely ever to confuse the OED with Urban Dictionary – one is the definitive record of the English language, the other is a rambling free-for-all largely compiled by teenagers making stuff up – but the comparison remains. Until relatively recently a word wasn’t recognised as such until it was recorded in a proper dictionary. Now neologisms are pouring into the language like never before; our vocabulary is being reshaped by texters, tweeters, bloggers, marketeers and have-a-go contributors. Slang used to take decades to cross the Atlantic; now it takes minutes. Before the latest edition of the Collins English Dictionary was published last October, its researchers analysed language trends among two billion words culled from websites, newspapers, celebrity magazines, radio and TV. Included among its 1,500 new entries were Cleggmania, tweetheart, fauxmance, BGT (for Britain’s Got Talent) and simples – meaning “easy to do”, from the meerkat ads.
But can a traditional dictionary ever hope to complete with an open-source one? Or, as one headline writer has already posited: does DIY spell RIP for the OED?
“By the time it is set down in hard covers, slang is already out of date,” believes Henry Hitchings, author of Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson’s Dictionary. “When you hear something and don’t know what it means, you don’t look it up in a book, you look it up on the internet; Urban Dictionary, places like that. The internet is the future of lexicography.”
If traditional dictionaries are struggling to keep up, you have only to look at the way they are compiled to appreciate why. So far there have been two printed editions of the OED; one 12-volume edition in 1928 and one 20-volume edition in 1989. A third is on its way, but not anytime soon. By the end of last month, it had taken 300 scholars 22 years to work their way from M to Ryvita. (A previous editor had started at A, but that is now so out of date that they are going to have to go back and start again.) The new OED has a projected publication date of 2037, by which time it will have cost £34m. By then it seems unlikely anyone will still be sexting or saying OMG, if they still do now. Collins’s entry for Cleggmania already reads like something from another era. It is an antiquated way of working, but then that is the point.
“The OED deals with hard evidence. With slang there’s a strong element of ephemera,” says Jonathon Green, author of more than a dozen books on slang, including the exhaustive three-volume, 6,000-page Green’s Dictionary of Slang. (It contains 997 different words for penis, for example.) Green also serves as an adviser on the OED. “Words have to have been around for years, and the OED has to present an awful lot of evidence to back up each entry,” he says. “They don’t allow themselves to take gambles.”
The OED is recognised by Guinness World Records as our longest official dictionary, with some 600,000 entries. Urban Dictionary has 5.7m. Anyone can contribute and plenty do: it receives 2,000 new submissions for potential inclusion every day and 15m unique visits every month. A ranking system means the best definitions rise to the top, while the least plausible fall to the bottom.
As an online linguistic resource its only real rival is Wikipedia. At its best, Urban Dictionary is a weathervane of our times, recording muffin top as far back as 2005. Douche bag, belieber and pram face were in there long before they entered wider parlance. Silvio Berlusconi’s insistence that “bunga bunga” is simply an expression he uses when telling jokes may have even less credibility after Urban Dictionary defined the phrase as an “erotic ritual which involves a powerful leader and several naked women”. Good old Nick Clegg made it into its pages before Christmas, as a verb. “To Nick Clegg, the act of promising something then not only breaking that promise but also going in the complete opposite direction.” Example: “Johnny: Alex has been Nick Clegging again; he said he was cutting rent and now he’s tripled it. Pete: I hate that clegger.”
There are plenty of other occasions when you want to applaud its inventiveness. Store d’oeuvres are free food samples given out by supermarket staff. A brodak moment is like a Kodak moment but is “a picture with only the guys”. Clutch oven is like a Dutch oven, but instead of breaking wind under the duvet you do so in a packed car. A treebook is “a predecessor to the ebook – a book made of paper”.
Urban Dictionary has been used by the Royal Courts of Justice to help a judge who was adjudicating in a music copyright case to understand the meaning of fo shizzle my nizzle and mish mish man. In America, the Department of Motor Vehicles refers to it when deciding whether to grant certain requests for licence plates (a Las Vegas driver was eventually allowed to keep HOE after managing to argue it was the best he could do after finding TAHOE unavailable.)
It has also proved a useful resource for the entertainment industry. “The people at Fox use it to decide if a Simpsons or Family Guy episode is OK to air,” Peckham says. “To figure out what the dialogue in those shows actually means.” Then there are instances where you figure Urban Dictionary could have helped out, if only people had thought to consult it. Boris Johnson might be something of a words man but when he recently used the expression “blapping” – as in, “keep blapping ministers between the eyes until they understand that it would be utter madness to cut infrastructure projects” – he presumably imagined it meant slapping or bopping. The OED doesn’t recognise the word, but Urban Dictionary does. “Blap, verb: the act of slapping someone across the face with your penis.” Then again, maybe he knew exactly what he was saying.
Peckham started Urban Dictionary in 1999, during the first year of his computer science course at California State Polytechnic University. (Through advertising revenue, it is now successful enough to be his full-time job.) “I was talking with friends about how different our language was, depending on what part of the country we were from, and how there wasn’t a dictionary that captured those differences,” he says. “Most dictionaries are objective. Urban Dictionary is completely subjective. It’s not presented as fact, [but] as opinions. I think that can be a lot more valuable.”
There is little intellectual rigour about Urban Dictionary; it is often coarse, profane and offensive, and it goes unchecked for accuracy, even spelling – which for a dictionary must be a first. “I love the imperfections in it,” says Peckham. “People’s grammar or punctuation or spelling – it’s just so raw. Straight from the heart of the person who’s writing it, with no corrections made. Meaning is in the eye of the beholder, but maybe spelling and punctuation are as well.”
Given that 80% of Urban Dictionary’s users are under 25, a common wheeze is trying to submit hideously defamatory definitions for the names of their friends or teachers. “Yeah, that’s not good for anybody,” Peckham sighs. “Not for the kids ‘cos they get caught, the teachers ‘cos they show up on Google, or me ‘cos I have to deal with it.”
Volunteer editors select which submissions pass muster. In the past 30 days 67,000 people wrote 76,000 new definitions and 3,500 volunteer editors decided whether to publish them. For this, Peckham has devised 10 rules. Publish celebrity names, but reject “real life” names. Reject nonsense, inside jokes or anything submitted in capital letters. Racial and sexual slurs are allowed, racist and sexist entries are not. “Denying a word exists by removing it from the dictionary is not helping anybody. I remember being 12 and looking in a real dictionary for those types of words. It’s frustrating, because you know they exist.” (The Oxford Dictionaries omitted “fuck” until 1972.)
However, slang expert Green’s problem with Urban Dictionary isn’t that it contains offensive words. “It’s amateur hour. They set themselves up as an authority and I don’t believe they are. There aren’t 2,000 new slang words a day – they don’t exist. It undermines the whole point of a dictionary. If you want to have something called The Book Of Amusing Words That Young People Come Up With, then fine, let’s have that. I’ll stick with [Viz comic’s] Roger’s Profanisaurus.”
Slang has been getting a bum rap, accused of cheapening the language, since before the earliest known slang dictionary, the 1699 Dictionary of the Canting Crew, a guide to the street talk of professional rogues. We know the Greeks and Romans used slang. It serves important sociological functions, bonding groups as disparate as bird-watchers, boys at Eton, prisoners, soldiers and (of course) teenagers, while excluding others. “My response to people saying slang destroys the language is: bollocks,” says Green. “You always see the same themes: drugs, drink, sex, parts of the body and what people do with them, being nasty to each other, racist stuff. It doesn’t do compassion very well. But slang is lively, exciting and very creative.”
Slang helps keep a language alive. Above all, playing around with it is simply good fun. Naturally Urban Dictionary has a word for this. Neologasm. Or: “the intensely pleasurable sensations generated by using, hearing or coining a new word or phrase (that doesn’t suck)”.