According to the New York Times, courts are having issues with slang, like changing-the-outcome-of-a-case issues. Language brings us all together, but can also cause a pretty big comprehension divide. Thumb through OED and you’ll find that word can have one meaning, but chat with Joe Sixpack on the streets, that word could mean something else entirely. (Or just be misinterpreted a la Phil Why-The-Face? Dunphy.) Not to be down on the dictionary industry—because it’s trying to keep up—but there is a definite lag (see, i.e., “defriend” making OED’s March 2013 “New Word List” when it’s been tossed around as a verb and/or threat since the dawn of Facebook).
So what’s a judge to do? Since it’s not possible to know all the meanings, many have been turning to Urban Dictionary, a crowd-sourced mecca for all that is slang and pop culture related. One positive aspect to using Urban Dictionary is that it’s a really cheap (compared to hiring a linguist or other expert) way to find out that when the GTL-ing kids are talking about a grenade, they’re not referring to something that was used to save Private Ryan. But on the negative side is that you could have an entry that has over a hundred definitions (the NYT uses “emo” as an example with its 1,000+), which lacks the authority granted by more established dictionaries. Pretty soon we’re going to have to consider how much authority to allow such sources, and whether or not justice can be properly served without them.
Interestingly enough, courts aren’t the only entities relying on Urban Dictionary. In 2009, Nevada’s DMV relied on it when denying a personalized license plate to a man who was looking to celebrate his beloved Chevy model and found out that TAHOE was already taken. Needless to say, the Nevada Supreme Court didn’t find enough evidence to support the assumption that, when presented in a stand-alone fashion, three letters from “TAHOE” make a word that many assume refers to a prostitute. Wonder if that would hold up in 2013.
[Upon competition, I noticed about ten instances of slang, pop culture, and/or insider abbreviation. Clearly I am a part of the problem. Apologies if any part of this post made you feel akin to those Peanuts students.]Tags: Courts, Slang, Urban Dictionary