While it was started as a satire site, Urban Dictionary has become the immediate archive of social media.
It seems like there have been more words added to our daily lexicon in the past few years than at any other time in our history. Leave it to pop culture to constantly invent new words and idioms to try to carve out its distinct place in history, while rehashing styles from the past. But let’s not get into a discussion on trends…
Urban Dictionary, a crowdsourced online dictionary that lets the public contribute words and definitions, was started in 1999 by Aaron Peckham, a college freshman. Since then, more than 7 million definitions of words, acronyms and phrases are listed on the site, and 2,000 definitions are added daily. The site’s audience has grown steadily, as well. In October 2013, 8.4 million people checked the website monthly, up from 6 million in November 2010, according to comScore. Of course, by the very nature of the web itself, it seems that Urban Dictionary was bound to exist one way or another as a means to collate all of the diverse lingo-pop gathered throughout the web.
And that is precisely what makes Urban Dictionary’s role important, said C.W. Anderson, a professor of media culture at the City University of New York.
“The Internet is everywhere, but it has its own regional vernacular,” he said. “And those expressions move into standardized language. That process is occurring — like everything else — far more quickly. What’s different now is that it’s being transcribed and written down.”
What’s more: “It’s something that other social and online media sites haven’t really done,” he added.
Despite its popularity, Urban Dictionary doesn’t have much in common with its internet compatriots like Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Where those companies are deemed billion dollar ventures, Urban Dictionary’s a more modest business, run by Peckham, its 32-year-old founder, out of his home in San Francisco.
Peckham prides himself on his independent status though, saying that he originally started the site because he didn’t like the idea that “a printed dictionary, which is updated rarely, tells you what thoughts are OK to have, what words are OK to say.”
While Urban Dictionary is certainly a success in its own right, Peckham has a history of making satirical Internet sites. While he was studying computer science at the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, he created a spoof of the now extinct search engine, Ask Jeeves. It wasn’t long, however, before he received a cease-and-desist order. After he shut down that site, he turned his attention to a site that satirized Dictionary.com.
“At first, all the content was by me and my friends, having fun,” he said. But after he graduated, he continued to tinker with the project, named Urban Dictionary, even though he had a job at Google. That job didn’t last long; after two years, he quit to work on Urban Dictionary full time.
“I just wanted to work on one project that represents me,” he said.
Anyone can add a word, no matter how vulgar or controversial, to Urban Dictionary. As a result, much of the content is R-rated. Submissions are approved and rated by volunteers and visitors to the site.
Peckham says he rarely edits the site or removes words that might be deemed offensive, unless they are aimed at a specific person or reveal someone’s private information. He said it was rare that definitions appeared that were “really racist or sexist.”
While someone with a glass demeanor may have be offended once or twice (or a hundred) while scrolling through some of the less than bourgeois definitions, its the freedom of the web that allows the dictionary to become as diverse and all-encompassing as it is.
But Peckham isn’t worried about the lack of billion dollar funding or the potentially offensive content. Urban Dictionary had not deterred major advertisers and companies from partnering with him to market their products to Urban Dictionary’s audience, as it showcases a valuable marketing stagefront for that much sought after 15- to 24-year-old market.
Urban Dictionary also reflects the fast pace of the Internet. With traditional dictionaries, it can take months or even years for new words and terms to be granted entry. Urban Dictionary offers an alternative space where words can be introduced and accepted in less than a day.
“People have always been inventive with language,” said Katherine Connor Martin, the head of U.S. Dictionaries at Oxford University Press, which publishes the Oxford Dictionaries and maintains the company’s own online dictionary.
“In the 19th century, if young people were using slang terms among themselves, those words had to become very well entrenched before anything came into popular use,” she added. “Now, if someone invents a new word on Twitter, it can go viral.”
It seems all they need now is a version for multiple languages.
If you’ve never been to Urban Dictionary before, then check it out. You’ll be increasing your vocabulary in no time!