CRF Blog

Slang in the Courts

by Damon Huss

The web site Urban Dictionary was started in 1999 as a crowdsourced compendium of slang terms. It was also started as a “parody” site, according to its founder, who was a college freshman at the time. Today, there are about 2.3 million definitions on the site and about 110 million monthly page views.

Federal and state courts have even been turning to the site fairly often when the definition of a slang term becomes an evidentiary question in cases. According to an article by Leslie Kaufman at the New York Times, “In the last year alone, the Web site was used by courts to define iron (‘handgun’); catfishing (‘the phenomenon of Internet predators that fabricate online identities’); dap (‘the knocking of fists together as a greeting, or form of respect’); and grenade (‘the solitary ugly girl always found with a group of hotties’).”

The rationale for courts to use the site is that the crowdsourcing means of determining which definitions become accepted is actually a form of consensus on slang terms’ meanings. Kaufman’s article continues:

Reference in legal cases to Urban Dictionary and Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, have become common enough that in its Spring 2010 issue, the law review of St. John’s University in Queens published an article that tried to create standardized rules for the most appropriate uses of crowdsourced Web sites.

Scientific terms and other technical definitions should not be culled from such sites, the article concluded, but it added, “The wisdom of the crowd is an appropriate and valuable reference when consensus itself is at issue, the information is generally known or the content is easily verifiable.”

The idea that consensus rules has its skeptics. Tom Dalzell, senior editor of The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, is a fan of Urban Dictionary, but he argues that the site has obvious limits.

“Using them in court is a terrible idea; they don’t claim to be an authority or a reference,” he said. “Some of the stuff on their site is very good, but there is more chaff than wheat. It is a lazy person’s resource.” [more]