Whatchu Talkin' Bout?
A few months ago David Turnbull, 37, of Portland, Ore., used the term “California car pool” in an online exchange with a colleague, who didn’t know what he meant. Turnbull had used the phrase among friends for years and turned to the Web site UrbanDictionary.com, his go-to source in such situations, for an official definition.
He found no entry for the phrase. “Everything I’d ever looked up had always been there,” he recalled.
So Turnbull, an Internet applications developer, took the matter upon himself and wrote a definition of "California car pool": “When each member of a group uses their own car to go to the same destination."
Turnbull apparently got the definition right. It was published after passing muster with the site’s 600 volunteer editors, and has more than 1,600 votes of approval from UrbanDictionary.com users. It was a “word of the day” on the site four days after he posted it.
“When the site first started I thought that I would have enough time to read all the entries and decide myself whether they should be published on the site," UrbanDictionary.com's founder, Aaron Peckham, said recently. “That was totally unrealistic.”
More people than ever are using Web sites like Peckham’s to define their slang. A few years ago, UrbanDictionary.com received 100,000 hits a day; it now gets about five times that. The more reference-focused Wiktionary.com has a devoted category where its volunteer editors can track slang. Since 2005, Merriam-Webster’s has maintained an online open dictionary project where users have uploaded thousands of their own words. Language professionals in academia are paying notice as well; the University of Oregon’s linguistics department maintains a student-cultivated slang dictionary online.
A software engineer in Silicon Valley, Peckham, 27, launched UrbanDictionary.com in 1999 while a freshman at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, Calif. He intended it as a parody of a traditional dictionary, as well as a way to settle bets between friends or to get an advantage in Scrabble. The site's swarm of daily visitors search or add to a database of one million definitions for 600,000 words, providing some 2,000 new definitions every 24 hours. About half of the submissions--including phrases like “make it rain” which means to throw dollar bills in the air at a strip club--actually go up online.
“Everybody wants to validate their forms of expression, like new words that they’ve made up or whatever they use to express themselves,” Peckham said. “It’s hard to look to a dictionary for that kind of validation if it’s only updated once a year.” In no traditional dictionary for example would one find “obamania”, meaning a national obsession with Sen. Barack Obama.
Of course words, and especially slang words, can mean different things to different people. Consider that Urban Dictionary‘s entry for “emo,” has 360 definitions. The page for the word, which usually refers to a polarizing subgenre of punk rock, reads like a high school cafeteria argument.
Dr. Eric Pederson, head of the linguistics department at the University of Oregon, notes that such byplay is to be expected. “Slang is there for a purpose,” he said. “It’s there to talk about stuff that is very, very important to your speech community.”
The increased passion for slang has had an impact on language professionals. With more people collecting and sharing more words online, slang’s mutations have become clearer and more available for study.
“Technology has made it easier for lexicographers to find and track new language and it has made the connecting paths that have always been there more visible,” Brooklyn-based lexicographer Grant Barrett, who hosts the public radio show, “A Way With Words,” said in an e-mail. “It is easier to see who is saying what to whom and in what manner.” Since 2004, Barrett has collected and kept a trained eye over the evolution of slang, jargon and fringe English at his site, DoubleTongued.org.
At Oregon, Pederson’s linguistics department has kept an online slang dictionary since 2000 (at babel.uoregon.edu/slang/pub_search.lasso). Any undergraduate who takes Linguistics 101 at the university must collect terms for the dictionary from a speech community from which they do not belong. The site can be viewed by categories that include Jazz Musician Snobs (where you find out that using the word “jazzy” makes you sound like a rube among jazz aficionados) and Affluent Rural Idaho Youth (among whom the term “fatty” can be used as a synonym for very).
Pederson hopes his dictionary will create an archive of current spoken English in and around the University of Oregon for perpetuity. In some distant future, the world will still be able to know that members of the South Eugene High School class of 2006 sometimes used the word “dankidy” to mean cool or outstanding.
“If there’s any reason to record any information about any community,” Pederson said, “what they talk about the most, and what they talk about most uniquely, seems to me about as vital as any information as you could collect about them.”