How Urban Dictionary Became a Cesspool for Racists and Misogynists
While social media's favorite lexicon, Merriam-Webster, has taken to cheekily correcting President Trump and members of his administration on their inaccurate statements and egregious misspellings, politics gets a little uglier over on Urban Dictionary.
Key in the phrase "Donald Trump" and the top definition reads: "America's worst president. Ever." The entries for "Hillary Clinton," however, are decidedly harsher. The former presidential nominee has been defined as a "cock juggling thunder cunt" and "[a] strap on fake penis used by lesbians who want to play the male role."
Virulent racism and sexism are common on the web, but Urban Dictionary is both intended as a resource and one of the most popular websites online. According to the Web analytics company Quantcast, it's currently the 31st most-visited site in the country, and last month garnered nearly 130 million page views. It's so popular, it's been used in court cases—including one in Tennessee in which a court Urban Dictionary's definition of "to nut" as meaning "to ejaculate," thus supporting grounds for a sexual harassment claim—and utilized by the Department of Motor Vehicles and by the US Patent and Trademark Office to look up the meanings of various slang terms.
The website was started in 1999 by college freshman Aaron Peckham as a parody of the real dictionary, because, as he told the California Polytechnic State University alumni magazine in 2011, "real dictionaries can be real stuffy and take themselves too seriously." He and his friends initially wrote many of the definitions, and for a while, he kept the web server under his bed. In 2013, Peckham told the New York Times, "[Other] dictionaries may be more heavily researched, but the real authority on language and the meaning comes from people who speak the language. The whole point of Urban Dictionary is we are defining our own language as we speak it."
By 2014, there were more than seven million definitions of words, acronyms, and phrases listed on the site, which attracts a mostly male audience ranging from 15- to 24-year-olds. They include popular slang terms like "struggle bus" ("used to metaphorically describe a difficult situation, as in hard schoolwork") and "moobs" ("This is what happens when fat gathers in a male's chest area, and gives him the appearance of having breasts. Usually seen in overweight males, but can strangely also occur in men who are not really overweight") and unheard of word concoctions like "starwank" ("the act of pleasing oneself while focusing intently on the night sky").
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Anyone with a Facebook or Gmail account can submit a new word or phrase, and volunteer editors—which are really just anyone who visits the site and clicks Edit—decide if submissions pass muster by simply voting to "Add It!," "Keep Out!," or "I Can't Decide." In other words, editors do not actually edit. According to a New York Times story from 2013, only five people must vote to add a definition for it to be included in Urban Dictionary, though even at that time about 2/3rds of entries were rejected. Some terms rack up hundreds of submitted meanings. Democracy—in the form of users voting thumbs up or thumbs down—was supposed to let the most accurate definitions rise to the top.
The profane, offensive, and grammatically and mechanically incorrect often go unchecked. "I love the imperfections in it," Peckham told the Guardian in a 2011 interview. "People's grammar or punctuation or spelling – it's just so raw. Straight from the heart of the person who's writing it, with no corrections made. Meaning is in the eye of the beholder, but maybe spelling and punctuation are as well."
He also shared some of the criteria editors are asked to consider when weighing whether a submission should be published: Rules include publishing celebrity names, but rejecting friends' names; rejecting nonsense, inside jokes, or anything submitted in capital letters; and allowing racial and sexual slurs, but not racist and sexist entries.
Yet the practical distinction between racial and sexual versus racist and sexist is unclear (as many of the entries I've already cited show). Because Urban Dictionary's model relies on anonymous internet users to supply and approve content, racism and sexism are rampant. For example, the term "skank" has almost 200 definitions. An example of one that, per the guidelines, more or less "document[s] discrimination but [does] not endorse it": "Derogatory term for a (usually younger) female, implying trashiness or tackiness, lower-class status, poor hygiene, flakiness, and a scrawny, pockmarked sort of ugliness. May also imply promiscuity, but not necessarily. Can apply to any race, but most commonly used to describe white trash." But another user defines the term differently: "Kim Kardashian." Example: "A worthless skank who gets famous from making a sex tape, inexplicably [sic] getting famous by society that just makes America look fucking stupider from all these idiots who for unknown reasons worship this whore…"
As of this writing, a request for comment from Urban Dictionary was unanswered. But in Peckham's interview with the Guardian six years ago, he explained the reasoning for allowing offensive terms to be published on the site: "Denying a word exists by removing it from the dictionary is not helping anybody," he said. "I remember being 12 and looking in a real dictionary for those types of words. It's frustrating, because you know they exist."
This does not justify the publication of blatant racism and sexism, though. In the past, Peckham has also come out as a champion for free speech online, penning in an amicus brief for the ACLU, "Everyone deserves the opportunity to express themselves, and everyone deserves the opportunity to understand everyone else. Urban Dictionary tries to make that kind of understanding possible (and be funny at the same time). It's a dictionary that reflects the real world because it gives people the freedom to define the world, in their terms."
But even words that seem fairly straightforward to decipher take on new meaning in the context of his website. The fifth definition for "women," for instance, reads, "things with vaginas that lie to men and steal their money." "Woman" is also defined as "a manipulative human," and "opposite of man, of whom are praised and worshipped in American society, when in actuality are as filthy and nasty as men themselves."
Although Urban Dictionary is an extreme example, lexical reference sources have always been biased against women. Just last year, the Oxford Dictionary of English caught some flak when an anthropologist noticed some of its example sentences were sexist. "Why does the Oxford Dictionary of English portray women as 'rabid feminists" with mysterious 'psyches' speaking in 'shrill voices' who can't do research or hold a PhD but can do 'all the housework'?" Michael Oman-Reagan wondered in a Medium post. In 1987, Mary Daly, the author of one feminist dictionary, coined the term "dick-tionary," meaning "any patriarchal dictionary: a derivative, tamed and muted lexicon compiled by dicks." Daly was among several people who came out around that time demanding the full recognition of women's roles in society by pushing words and meanings by and about women to the center of the dictionary.
Lindsay Rose Russell, an assistant professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says there's a long history of dictionaries taking a masculine view because "the English language contains a lot of words that are disparaging to certain classes of people, and women happen to be one of the classes of people that are the most disparaged. That's something that's a feature of English generally."
As an example, she points to the overlexicalization (the creation of many words or lexical items for a single concept) around words or phrases that have to do with women who are promiscuous: "sluts," "prostitutes," "loose," etc.
Antifeminism, sexism, and androcentrism have always found a home in the mouths of English speakers.
"And that is of course something that's represented in dictionaries and sometimes exaggerated also in dictionaries, depending on how defining styles work and things like that," Russell says. While there may be something to the fact that Urban Dictionary was a college project founded by a male student, she emphasizes that "antifeminism, sexism, and androcentrism have always found a home in the mouths of English speakers."
Russell also suggests that Urban Dictionary and similar online dictionaries do serve a valid purpose by filling a gap in lexical platforms. "A lot of dictionaries have historically been very squeamish about including words having to do with explicit sex acts," she explains. "Some of the first dictionaries to include descriptions of various things would be very coy in their definitions. They would define the word in Latin, so when you're looking it up, unless you knew Latin, you didn't know what definition you were reading.
"There's one example," Russell continues, "an older term for what we would today call 'titty-fucking' is 'larking.' An early dictionary defined that term as 'an unspeakable act' or something like that. Now, if you hear a term like 'larking' and you want to know what it is—obviously, 'larking' probably isn't in the Urban Dictionary with that definition—but you can certainly look up 'titty-fucking' there and learn what it means." (The top definition for "larking" on Urban Dictionary is, in part, "to be in an unsober state of mind.")
While Urban Dictionary has several entries for "titty fucking," another online resource, Wikipedia, also offers a definition, once you're redirected to "mammary intercourse." It defines the act as "performed as either foreplay or as non-penetrative sex, that involves the stimulation of the male penis by the female breasts and vice versa." Like Urban Dictionary, the online encyclopedia is also crowd-sourced, though its policies (which include a system of checks and balances that include peer review and automated programs) stress a goal of creating "high-quality work."
Meanwhile, the top definition for "titty fucking" on Urban Dictionary is a little more simple, a lot more graphic. It reads: "moving the penis in between the two boobs."
In 2012, Peckham told Poynter that this is the part he wants to protect most about Urban Dictionary: its personality. "People write really witty definitions, and they aren't taking it very seriously," he said. "I feel like that's what distinguishes Urban Dictionary from other dictionaries and Wikipedia. It's not trying to be the authority, and it's not trying to be without an opinion."
It may not be trying to be an authority, but many people, as well as the courts, have certainly considered it one. According to the New York Times, Urban Dictionary has been used within the judicial system to help define "iron" ("handgun"); "catfishing" ("the phenomenon of Internet predators that fabricate online identities"); and "grenade" ("the solitary ugly girl always found with a group of hotties"), among other slang terms. And while a case's outcome doesn't rest on a sole definition, Urban Dictionary has ultimately been a lexical resource that's aided in legal decisions.
Considering just how much racism and sexism pervade the website's pages, that's scary.