Friday, September 04, 2009
BOB GARFIELD: If you've ever puzzled over the meaning of the word “skank,” if you've ever felt like Webster’s just can't tell you the whole story, you might consider The Urban Dictionary. It’s a website where people post their own definitions to words and phrases, including some they invent themselves. The Urban Dictionary comes in handy when you’re the only person in the room unfamiliar with some obscure and probably filthy phrase. Later you can discreetly look it up. It has been used in court cases here and there. In one, a State Department of Motor Vehicles cited it when trying unsuccessfully to stop a driver from using H-O-E on his license plate. In another, a judge in England consulted it in a dispute between two rap artists, one claiming that the other had insulted him in a song. The judge looked up phrases like “shizzle my nizzle,” “mish mash man” and “string dem up” to decipher the case, but not even The Urban Dictionary could help him. So what started ten years ago as a college student’s hobby is now an evolving cultural document. Aaron Peckham was that college student. He says he started the site partly out of boredom, partly to document how he and his roommates actually talk.
AARON PECKHAM: And I thought that a dictionary would be more legitimate if the definitions were written by normal people who speak the language. So all four million definitions that have been submitted to Urban Dictionary in the last 10 years were written by random people from around the world who just happened to find my website and found it missing a particular word like “skank” or something like that.
BOB GARFIELD: One of the delights and, simultaneously, one of the most appalling things about [LAUGHS] The Urban Dictionary is the level of graphic detail that you find in definitions to terms that, on the face of it, don't sound all that repulsive, and yet you discover that, you know, a common household term or, you know, a menu item can [AARON LAUGHS] actually refer to something that is [LAUGHS] just a bit on the off-color side. Did these things exist before you, or have they been kind of created by a subculture of people who want to be in the lexicon?
AARON PECKHAM: I can't tell if these words existed with these meanings before Urban Dictionary, but that’s kind of the – part of the fun of visiting the site is that a lot of the definitions are totally false. They're definitely not objective. And so it’s really the reader’s responsibility to figure out if the definition you’re reading is relevant to you [LAUGHS] or whether it’s accurate.
BOB GARFIELD: So have you got any examples for me from the four million that we can, you know, talk about on the radio?
AARON PECKHAM: I can tell you about one that’s shown up a lot in the media recently. In April there was a group of people that formed to protest taxes, and they called themselves the “teabaggers.” Unfortunately, that word [BOB LAUGHS] has a very offensive definition in Urban Dictionary. Tax day, April 15th, was the biggest single day that I've had on Urban Dictionary, ever. Like 900,000 people came to visit the site on that day, and “teabagging” was the most popular definition of that day.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, now our producer, Nazanin Rafsanjani, has a personal favorite. It is – oh Mom, I'm sorry -
AARON PECKHAM: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: - “food douche.”
AARON PECKHAM: “Food douche: A person that thinks they know the best place to get any one specific item of food and that the places you know all suck.”
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHING] Keep reading.
AARON PECKHAM: Jason says, “I love this turkey sandwich.” Joey says, “This sandwich sucks. I know a place with the best turkey sandwich I've ever had.”
[BOB LAUGHS] Jason says, “You are such a food douche.”
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, now even that’s a little edgy. Have you got any that isn't going to make anybody wince?
AARON PECKHAM: Yeah. Every day I pick one of my favorite definitions on Urban Dictionary and put it on the front page, and the other day that word was “joke insurance.” Joke insurance is when two friends have a mutual understanding to laugh at each other’s jokes, even when they're not funny.
[BOB LAUGHS] One of my other favorite definitions is “afterclap.” An “afterclapper” is the person who continues to clap even after the rest of the audience has stopped clapping.
[BOB LAUGHS] Another of my favorite definitions is “finger guns: a way for creepy people with moustaches to say hello or ‘I understand.’ Hold your fingers in the shape of guns and point at someone who just arrived. Bend thumbs to simulate shooting your finger guns and make a clicking sound with your mouth.”
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Aaron. I can't take this any more.
AARON PECKHAM: [LAUGHS] I’m glad you enjoyed it.
BOB GARFIELD: Many, many thanks.
AARON PECKHAM: Thank you, Bob. It’s a pleasure to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: Aaron Peckham is the founder of Urbandictionary.com. For a longer and nearly unedited version of our interview with Aaron, go to our website, Onthemedia.org.