What Happened to Urban Dictionary? (2024)

On January 24, 2017, a user by the name of d0ughb0y uploaded a definition to Urban Dictionary, the popular online lexicon that relies on crowdsourced definitions. Under Donald Trump—who, four days prior, was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, prompting multiple Women's Marches a day later—he wrote: "The man who got more obese women out to walk on his first day in office than Michelle Obama did in eight years." Since being uploaded, it has received 25,716 upvotes and is considered the top definition for Donald Trump. It is followed by descriptions that include: "He doesn't like China because they actually have a great wall"; "A Cheeto… a legit Cheeto"; and "What all hispanics refer to as 'el diablo.'" In total, there are 582 definitions for Donald Trump—some hilarious, others so packed with bias you wonder if the president himself actually wrote them, yet none of them are entirely accurate.

Urban Dictionary, now in its 20th year, is a digital repository that contains more than 8 million definitions and famously houses all manner of slang and cultural expressions. Founded by Aaron Peckham in 1999—then a computer science major at Cal Poly—the site became notorious for allowing what sanctioned linguistic gatekeepers, such as the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster, would not: a plurality of voice. In interviews, Peckham has said the site began as a joke, as a way to mock Dictionary.com, but it didn't take long before it ballooned into a thriving corpus.

Today, Urban Dictionary averages around 65 million visitors a month, according to data from SimilarWeb, with almost 100 percent of its traffic originating via organic search. You can find definitions for just about anything or anyone: from popular phrases like Hot Girl Summer ("a term used to define girls being unapologetically themselves, having fun, loving yourself, and doing YOU") and In my bag ("the act of being in your own world; focused; being in the zone; on your grind") to musicians like Pete Wentz ("an emo legend. his eyeliner could literally kill a man"); even my name, Jason, has an insane 337 definitions (my favorite one, which I can attest is 1,000 percent true: "the absolute greatest person alive").

In the beginning, Peckham's project was intended as a corrective. He wanted, in part, to help map the vastness of the human lexicon, in all its slippery, subjective glory (a message on the homepage of the site reads: "Urban Dictionary Is Written By You"). Back then, the most exciting, and sometimes most culture-defining, slang was being coined constantly, in real time. What was needed was an official archive for those evolving styles of communication. "A printed dictionary, which is updated rarely," Peckham said in 2014, "tells you what thoughts are OK to have, what words are OK to say." That sort of one-sided authority did not sit well with him. So he developed a version that ascribed to a less exclusionary tone: local and popular slang, or what linguist Gretchen McCulloch might refer to as "public, informal, unselfconscious language" now had a proper home.

In time, however, the site began to espouse the worst of the internet—Urban Dictionary became something much uglier than perhaps what Peckham set out to create. It transformed into a harbor for hate speech. By allowing anyone to post definitions (users can up or down vote their favorite ones) Peckham opened the door for the most insidious among us. Racism, hom*ophobia, xenophobia, and sexism currently serve as the basis for some of the most popular definitions on the site. In fact, one of the site's definitions for sexism details it as "a way of life like welfare for black people. now stop bitching and get back to the kitchen." Under Lady Gaga, one top entry describes her as the embodiment of "a very bad joke played on all of us by Tim Burton." For LeBron James, it reads: "To bail out on your team when times get tough."

When I first discovered Urban Dictionary around 2004, I considered it a public good. The internet still carried an air of innocence then; the lion's share of people who roamed chat forums and posted on LiveJournal had yet to adopt the mob instincts of cancel culture; Twitter was years away from warping our consumption habits and Facebook was only a fraction of the giant it is today. I was relatively new to what the internet could offer—its infinite landscapes dazzled my curious teenage mind—and found a strange solace in Urban Dictionary.

My understanding of it hewed to a simple logic. Here was a place where words and phrases that friends, cousins, neighbors, and people I knew used with regularity found resonance and meaning. Before Urban Dictionary, I'd never seen words like hella or jawn defined anywhere other than in conversation. That they were afforded a kind of linguistic reverence was what awed me, what drew me in. The site, it then seemed, was an oasis for all varieties of slang, text speak, and cultural idioms. (Later, as black culture became the principal vortex for which popular culture mined cool, intra-communal expressions like bae, on fleek, and turnt, were increasingly the property of the wider public.) It was a place where entry into the arena did not require language to adhere to the rules of proper grammar. As Mary B. Zeigler and Viktor Osinubi proposed in “Theorizing the Postcoloniality of African American English,”, it is the “cultural elite and their allies who help enforce acceptable codes of linguistic conduct,” which unfairly leverages social customs.

What Happened to Urban Dictionary? (2024)
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