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Let's Get 'Cited': Citing Urban Dictionary Slang in Court

By Kelly Cheung | Last updated on

Move over Black's, there's a new dictionary in court and it's free. Urban Dictionary, an online slang dictionary, is a source that some lawyers and judges are relying on in court to define the latest in urban vocab.

Words like "iron," "catfishing," "dap," and "grenade" are just some of the words defined using Urban Dictionary in courts last year. Should attorneys should be "cited" for this new resource? It's online, free, and ... reliable? Um, the jury is still out.

Crowd-Sourced Slang

Urban Dictionary's slang definitions are submitted by users and users' votes determine which words become published, founder Aaron Peckham told The New York Times. One word can have hundreds of entries, but the definitions are ranked by popularity to give attorneys some idea which definitions are most accurate.

To some, the ranking shows how unreliable this dictionary can be. How do we decide which definition and can we trust the users? Compared to traditional dictionaries that are thoroughly researched, Urban Dictionary looks more like Buzzfeed than an authority.

Popularity vs. Accuracy

The Oxford Online Dictionary has their doubts about a court's use of Urban Dictionary. Editor Jeese Sheidlower told The Times that this is not a popularity contest. She points out that just because a word is popular in ranking, does not make it accurate. Sheidlower further notes that people click to vote for words not just because they agree it's accurate, but also because they find it funny.

However, traditional dictionaries might be just too slow for today's development of slang. Urban Dictionary is updated at the speed of the interwebs, thanks to users. Last year, the Oxford Online Dictionary added words like "soul patch," "OMG" and "LOL." Anyone in a household with a kid will LOL -- these words aren't exactly fresh.

See, e.g., Urban Dictionary.

So, should attorneys use Urban Dictionary? It could depend on your jurisdiction. There are courts that have accepted it, while others dismiss it for being unreliable. The Nevada Supreme Court was one such court.

The Times reports a 62-year-old man had his personalized license plate to say "HOE" because it was short for his Chevrolet Tahoe and "TAHOE" was not available. The court said it couldn't deny him this plate just because Urban Dictionary says it means something offensive. The Nevada Supreme Court said that "A reasonable mind would not accept the Urban Dictionary entries alone as adequate to support a conclusion that the word "HOE" is offensive or inappropriate."

Apparently not all courts agree with Nevada. The Times also cites a Wisconsin appeals court that used the Dictionary last month in defining ;"jack" as ;"to steal, or take from an unsuspecting person or store." The defendant's claim was rejected after the court considered this meaning.

According to Peckham, the crowd sourced dictionary takes in 30,000 or so new suggestions each month. As the 77th biggest website in the country, it is hard to deny Urban Dictionary at least some cred.

Even though some courts are accepting Urban Dictionary in their proceedings, lawyers should be wary of citing to it too freely. It can be treated much like Wikipedia was in the past. Last year, the Fourth Circuit overturned convictions because a juror used Wikipedia for research. The court noted the website's "open-access nature" raised questions of reliability.

What's the bottom line? Attorneys should try to find out what their jurisdiction's view is on online dictionaries and sources before citing to them. For serious.

Editor's note, May 24, 2016: This post was first published in May, 2013. It has since been updated.

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