Is that a Word? Urban Dictionary as a Site for Citizen Sociolinguistics

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!