Thank you to RCCola for posting a comment about Urban Dictionary! (See previous entry, How Citizen Sociolinguists Work: Pow!). UrbanDictionary.com can be a crucial first stop for a Citizen Sociolinguist. Despite being filled with smarmy filth, Urban Dictionary helps the sociolinguistically curious access crucial meanings behind many words—even seemingly mature words.
Urban Dictionary also gives us a new way of thinking about what words mean—and even what counts as a word. As mentioned previously on this site, people often judge their own language by what some imagined, composite Authority on Language might say about it. We may hear that internalized voice of the Standardization Big Brother asking: Is that even a word!?
From a Citizen Sociolinguistics perspective, the best way to find out about word meaning is not to ask, “Is that a word?” (which might pointlessly lead one to a traditional dictionary) but to figure out how people use the item in question and what impression it makes. Here’s where Urban Dictionary can be a handy first stop. Let’s think this through by puzzling over arguably one of the most annoying words in the English language: Irregardless.
Now, the first (most popular) entry on Urban Dictionary says irregardless is…
Used by people who ignorantly mean to say regardless. According to webster, it is a word, but since the prefix “ir” and the suffx “less” both mean “not or with” they cancel each other out, so what you end up with is regard. When you use this to try to say you don’t care about something, you end up saying that you do. Of course everyone knows what you mean to say and only a pompous,rude asshole will correct you.
Despite gratuitous profanity typical of Urban Dictionary, this entry seems to capture a crucial social meaning of “irregardless”—its association with being pompous in an ignorant way. So, Urban Dictionary provides a useful first step toward understanding a word-like item’s social value. A second step might be to see how this aligns with our own and others’ experience. Regarding irregardless, this Urban Dictionary entry aligns nicely with a more G-rated version of the same sentiment, voiced by Bert, a 16-year-old high school student:
I feel like people say “irregardless” to sound like they know what they are talking about. Go on Facebook arguments and you’ll see it: “ Irregardless” [said with funny pompous voice]. People use it to try to sound smart. “Irregardless” [pompous voice again]. They are trying to sound smart.
For most humans, whether some spoken item officially counts as a word is only the tip of the conversational iceberg. As these comments illustrate, a host of other questions seem more critical:
- What type of impression am I trying to make when I use this word?
- Do my conversation partners know about it?
- Do they have some awareness of how I am using this word?
- Do I have any awareness of how I am using this word?
While Urban Dictionary may provide wide-ranging answers of variable quality, it makes a good a first stop on the Citizen Sociolinguistic exploration of a word’s social value.
What are your criteria for a word? Does its existence on Urban Dictionary make it so? How do you use Urban Dictionary? Post your comments here!
3 thoughts on “Is that a Word? Urban Dictionary as a Site for Citizen Sociolinguistics”
Usually I use Urban dictionary to get confirmation for the ways I use words; i.e., I sometimes doubt the words/expressions that suddenly show up at the tip of my tongue. If urban dictionary is within easy reach, I check those on it. Or, I simply google the expression to see whether such an expression actually exists. Indeed, many times I find blogs/pages where people post questions about these expressions.
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I’m a huge fan of the Urban Dictionary and what it offers any language lover. Friends of mine and I have even created a variation of the game Balderdash using the UD app on our phones for terms and having players guess the meanings. It has also come in handy as a high school English teacher, not only as a quick resource for me to find out the meaning of a word I hear, but also as a tool to let students know the additional (and sometimes offensive) meanings to words/phrases they may use in an inappropriate context. For example, one student decided to end a Friday edition taping of a school-wide news tv broadcast with “make it rain, ya’ll”. When I told them to re-shoot the closing without that potentially inappropriate request, he challenged my interpretation. A simple check to the UD gave us the definition I feared, as well as several even more obscene offerings we both were surprised to see. Regardless (irregardless? 😉 ) of his intention, the UD provided a great lesson on connotation and audience awareness.
As for the site itself, I remember reading a few years ago how the word “slang” had been removed from the site description. I find this appropriate, since it has become much more than a slang repository. I also appreciate how it claims to offer “word descriptions” instead of just “definitions”. Prescriptivists may cringe at the thought of the crowd-sourced UD having any cred as a language authority, but it’s hard to overlook the finger it has on the amorphous pulse of our evolving language.
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I remember playing Balderdash in college (but we called it “dictionary”) with a big fat Webster’s Dictionary as our source. (The Internet had not been invented yet). So I’m curious to see how it would work with UD. But I’m thinking the game might not last very long. Because, one of the amazingly great things about the old-fashioned way is that it counted on the AUTHORITY of the Big Dictionary to make the game be funny. We got to come up with seemingly official sounding definitions to try to fool people into believing an absurd or racy made-up version was the real entry. UD seems like it is actually an on-line version of all the answers people would make up in an old-fashioned game of “Dictionary.” Curious to see how this works In Real Life… gonna try.