Wack Courtrooms Look to Urban Dictionary for Help With Slang


Hey, hey, hep cat jurors! In today’s modern and crazy courtroom, some words may come up that you don’t quite understand. While in your everyday life, you could just let these words go, in court you gotta get wise to ’em because they may make the difference in a guilty/not guilty verdict. Ya dig, turkeys?

Luckily, courts across the country are looking to the world wide website Urban Dictionary as a slang source to help all you squares out there.

From the New York Times:

Last month, Urban Dictionary was cited in a financial restitution case in Wisconsin, where an appeals court was reviewing the term “jack” because a convicted robber and his companion had referred to themselves as the “jack boys.”
The court noted, however, that according to Urban Dictionary, “jack” means “to steal, or take from an unsuspecting person or store.” It then rejected the convicted man’s claim that he should not have to make restitution to the owner of a van he stole to use in a robbery.

A court in Tennessee also recently used Urban Dictionary to expose that “to nut” means “to ejaculate” and were then able to reject a motion to dismiss a sexual harassment claim.

In fact, courts are using Urban Dictionary all of the time:

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”).

Why were the words “dap” or “grenade” used in a court case at all? Who knows? The fun mysteries of life!

Citing Urban Dictionary in court will likely become more and more common. Says Rutgers professor of law Greg Lastowka, “If it is Urban Dictionary or hire some linguistic expert to do a survey, it seems like a pretty cheap, pretty good alternative for the court.”

While the courtroom use of a crowdsourced slang dictionary has its supporters (“cool guys”), there are others (“lamewads”) who think it is out of place.

“Using [Urban Dictionary definitions] in court is a terrible idea; they don’t claim to be an authority or a reference. Some of the stuff on their site is very good, but there is more chaff than wheat. It is a lazy person’s resource,” says Tom Dalzell, senior editor of The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. (U jelly, Dalzell?)

Dalzell may actually have a point. Anyone can submit a definition to Urban Dictionary (though the definition goes through a few rounds of approval before appearing on the site) and often a definition gets published not because of accuracy, but because of humor. As the NYT points out, the word “emo” has over 1,100 definitions, so which one does the court reference when one teen stabs another with a My Chemical Romance CD?

The 2010 issue of the law review of St. John’s University in Queens made an attempt at determining what sort of crowdsourcing is appropriate in a legal context.

From the Times:

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.”

Easy, man!

For the Word on the Street, Courts Call Up an Online Witness [NYT]

Image via Everett Collection/Shutterstock.

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