What Happened to Urban Dictionary?

My understanding of it hewed to a simple logic. Here was a place where words and phrases that friends, cousins, neighbors, and people I knew used with regularity found resonance and meaning. Before Urban Dictionary, I’d never seen words like hella or jawn defined anywhere other than in conversation. That they were afforded a kind of linguistic reverence was what awed me, what drew me in. The site, it then seemed, was an oasis for all varieties of slang, text speak, and cultural idioms. (Later, as black culture became the principal vortex for which popular culture mined cool, intra-communal expressions like bae, on fleek, and turnt, were increasingly the property of the wider public.) It was a place where entry into the arena did not require language to adhere to the rules of proper grammar. As Mary B. Zeigler and Viktor Osinubi proposed in “Theorizing the Postcoloniality of African American English,”, it is the “cultural elite and their allies who help enforce acceptable codes of linguistic conduct,” which unfairly leverages social customs.

Urban Dictionary’s abandonment of that edict afforded it a rebel spirit. Early on, the beauty of the site was its deep insistence on showing how slang is socialized based on a range of factors: community, school, work. How we casually convey meaning is a direct reflection of our geography, our networks, our worldviews. At its best, Urban Dictionary crystallized that proficiency. Slang is often understood as a less serious form of literacy, as deficient or lacking. Urban Dictionary said otherwise. It let the cultivators of the most forward-looking expressions of language speak for themselves. It believed in the splendor of slang that was deemed unceremonious and paltry.

In her new book, Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, McCulloch puts forward a question: “But what kind of net can you use to capture living language?” She tells the story of German dialectologist Georg Wenker, who mailed postal surveys to teachers and asked them to translate sentences. French linguist Jules Gilliéron later innovated on Wenker’s method: He sent a trained worker into the field to oversee the surveys. This practice was known as dialect mapping. The hope was to identify the rich, varied characteristics of a given language: be it speech patterns, specific terminology, or the lifespan of shared vocabulary. For a time, field studies went on like this. Similar to Wikipedia and Genius, Urban Dictionary inverted that approach through crowdsourcing: the people came to it.

“In the early years of Urban Dictionary we tried to keep certain words out,” Peckham once said. “But it was impossible—authors would re-upload definitions, or upload definitions with alternate spellings. Today, I don’t think it’s the right thing to try to remove offensive words.” (Peckham didn’t respond to emails seeking comment for this story.) One regular defense he lobbed at critics was that the site, and its cornucopia of definitions, was not meant to be taken at face value. Its goodness and its nastiness, instead, were a snapshot of a collective outlook. If anything, Peckham said, Urban Dictionary tapped into the pulse of our thinking.

But if the radiant array of terminology uploaded to the site was initially meant to function as a possibility of human speech, it is now mostly a repository of vile language. In its current form, Urban Dictionary is a cauldron of explanatory excess and raw prejudice. “The problem for Peckham’s bottom line is that derogatory content—not the organic evolution of language in the internet era—may be the site’s primary appeal,” Clio Chang wrote in The New Republic in 2017, as the site was taking on its present identity.

Luckily, like language, the internet is stubbornly resistant to stasis. It is constantly reconfiguring and building anew. Today, other digital portals—Twitter, Instagram, gossip blogs like Bossip and The Shade Room, even our smartphones—function as better incubators of language than Urban Dictionary. In fact, Bossip’s headline mastery functions as a direct extension of black style—which is to say they embrace, head on, the syntax and niche vernacular of a small community of people. The endeavor is both an acknowledgement of and a lifeline to a facet of black identity.