I don’t often mention the London Review of Books in this BLOG. In fact, I never have. I’ve never found much of a direct connection between anything I’ve read there and Citizen Sociolinguistics. Until now!
Today I read a letter to the editor in the LRB (27 July) that took issue with some language in an article in a previous issue (LRB, 29 June). Not uncommon in the LRB. But then (not common at all!), to back up his point, the writer, Will Bowers, cited Urban Dictionary.
Mr. Bowers specifically took issue with the term used for nitrous oxide (which you may know from the good old days of dentistry as “happy gas”). It seems this substance is now used “by young people today.” Mr. Bowers seems fine with that, but expressed concern that Will Self, the author of the essay in question, referred to the substance as “nozz” rather than “nos.”
You may be wondering: How was Mr. Bowers, of Merton College, Oxford, so familiar with nitrous oxide and its various monikers? He clarifies: “…the popularity of the drug among teenagers at the turn of the century coincided with the release of The Fast and the Furious, a terrible film in which cars were customized to go faster with the addition of NOS (Nitrous Oxide Systems).”
How does Mr.Bowers then make the case for this term (NOS), from a “terrible film,” over Mr. Self’s choice (nozz)?
Mr. Bowers hedges a bit before drawing on Urban Dictionary, referring to it as “the not altogether reliable urbandictionary.com”. However, his findings from that potentially unreliable source clinch his argument. As he writes,
“urbandictionary.com agrees, placing the slang for the drug as the fifth term in its entry for ‘nos’, while the entry for ‘nozz’ has only one definition: ‘A swag person that excels in social activities’.”
How did Urban Dictionary become a useful source here? Is it simply a matter of convenience? Or might it be the very best source in this case? When the knowledge of bona fide nos users is in question, UD seems to be the right choice.
Dear readers, have you ever cited UD as a source? What were the conditions? Did it serve you well? And how did you tailor your argument to your audience? Did you need to hedge or apologize for your UD use? Please comment below!