Defining all the words your kids use, both witty and profane

April 10, 2005|By Susan Reimer

I was the queen of homework Web sites during my children's school years. Before most families had mastered keyboards on their home computers, I found a place on the Internet that would translate my children's school papers into a foreign language.

I thought I had seen it all until I saw this reference in one of my daughter's college papers: www.urbandictionary.com.

It is the home of slang.

Aaron Peckham, the California college computer whiz who launched Urban Dictionary, laughed out loud when I told him that at least one college kid was listing it in a bibliography.

"I love it," he said. "The anti-authority becomes the authority."

Peckham, finishing undergraduate and master's degrees in computer science simultaneously at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, started Urban Dictionary in 1999 as a freshman.

"Lexicography is kind of a hobby and, actually, some of the first entries were to resolve arguments I was having with my friends about certain words."

Within a year, more than just his friends were entering words, phrases and definitions for them. There are now more than a half a million words listed in this online dictionary, and in February the Web site received more than 1.5 million visitors.

There are also T-shirts (saying "Define your world") and a book deal - Peckham is going to produce a hard copy of Urban Dictionary.

You can't get much more mainstream than that.

"I've read about how words are chosen for dictionaries and it is a real process," Peckham said.

"This is different. It is any word that shows up in your life. As a result, it is more than a dictionary. It is a testimonial to what that word means in your life."

Casual sex: sex that wears trousers and a nice-looking polo shirt to work and parties.

Many of the definitions are R-rated and many more are for what mothers like to call bathroom words.

With more than 2,000 words and definitions sent to the site every day, it would be impossible for Peckham to screen them. But he wouldn't if he could.

"I want something that is relevant, bathroom or not," said Peckham. "This is a glimpse into the culture that you wouldn't have any other way."

Peckham's mother isn't happy with some of the entries. And he says his father thinks he should get rid of the racial slurs.

"I don't want racism in Urban Dictionary," Peckham says. "I can't support that kind of hatred. But I want people to define racial slurs. Everyone deserves to know what that word means."

But Urban Dictionary isn't just a stall door in a public restroom on the Internet. It is an unexpurgated view of the world of young people and the language they use to describe it.

If nothing else, it is a way for parents and teachers to understand what young people are saying.

Miss me: lose my number; don't call me. Leave me alone.

Urban Dictionary at its best is a compendium of the vernacular, Peckham says, and the speed with which words and definitions are added is a measure of how fast language is changing.

Ever use the expression "let's hook up later" in front of your mortified teen-ager?

Urban Dictionary can tell you what that phrase means to your kids: "A term used to refer to cheap, meaningless, no-strings-attached sex."

Urban Dictionary offers a glimpse of the political, as well. For example, "You forgot Poland" has made its way into the language as a hip retort.

It was President Bush's response during the presidential debates when John Kerry criticized him for failing to create a real coalition for the invasion of Iraq.

In Urban Dictionary, the definition reads: A sad excuse for an argument given by an incumbent president trying desperately to escape his dismal record.

In usage, it is something you say when you recognize that you have been one-upped, but you want the last word anyway.

Peckham has created a network of editors to help him with the impossible job of sorting through the entries that come in every day.

True to his mission, Peckham does not choose the editors; they choose themselves, and they exercise their own judgment based on his guidelines.

"I think I have done something very unique in terms of computer science," says Peckham, who is describing the editing system in his master's thesis.

"I am investigating whether it is possible, with the contribution of millions of people, to create a system that would make decisions as I would, that would reflect my values more than just control the flow of words."

But Peckham retains the right to choose the word of the day.

Podestrian: A person who can be spotted with the iconic white iPod earbuds in their ears. Derived from a combination of iPod and pedestrian.

"It is my hobby and I plan to continue, even though it isn't going to be my job," said Peckham.

"We need to understand each other and express ourselves. This does both. And it is doing the world some good."

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