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The case of Urban Dictionary

Michael Rundell interviews Barbara McGillivray on the _Urban Dictionary_.
So, Barbara, the first thing I would like to ask you is what is the Urban Dictionary and how is it different from other English dictionaries? Urban Dictionary is a crowd sourced online dictionary which means that it was, it’s not created by a team of professional lexicographers but it contributed to by ordinary people. So, anyone can sign in and add a definition to Urban Dictionary which makes Urban Dictionary very rich and a very varied resource. It’s been around for quite some time - it was founded in 1999 - and its been growing a lot, its actually quite an established resource.
And one of the things that makes Urban Dictionary so particular is that, as I said anyone can add a new definition so the unit is a definition rather than the headword. And we did an analysis in 2017 - it was published this year in 2018 - where we analysed the content of Urban Dictionary so we did the first systematic analysis of the content, and we compared it with other dictionaries like Wiktionary, which is also crowdsourced but it turns out its quite different from Urban Dictionary.
And so Wiktionary is more highly curated, moderated so there are community guidelines, so there are quite strict criteria for including new content whereas in Urban Dictionary anyone can add a definition, and definitions themselves are very interesting because they’re not what you would expect. They often don’t contain an explanation of the meaning of a word but the opinion of the contributor. So, we asked some people to analyse a small set of entries and what we found is that a very high proportion of those entries, of those definitions, were opinions, were not really lexicographic definitions. So, if you take the example of ‘selfie’, one of the definitions you find in Urban Dictionary is ‘the beginning of the end of civilisation’.
So that’s obviously not what you would expect or how you would explain selfie to someone who doesn’t know the word but it’s a personal opinion. We also found a lot of offensive, informal content and also personal content and proper names. So that was an interesting finding because we measured the extent to which these intuitions were actually proven by numbers. Oh, that’s so interesting. My second question is how would you see the Urban Dictionary contributing to the lexicographic description of English? Well it’s always very difficult to predict the future but what I can say is based on the analysis we’ve done about the present, the data of Urban Dictionary now.
And it does seem like Urban Dictionary is much faster at recording language change compared to traditional dictionaries. It can take years sometimes for a word to find its way into a traditional dictionary and it takes no time for someone to add a new definition to the Urban Dictionary. Also we found that a lot of definitions are not familiar to the people we asked, but if one word has a lot of definitions, then that word tends to be more familiar to people, which is an indication that there is some sort of language trend being recorded in Urban Dictionary. So its definitely a resource to watch both for researchers and for lexicographers.

In this video, Michael Rundell interviews fellow course educator Barbara McGillivray about the Urban Dictionary.

Further reading

You can read more about Barbara’s research in an article called ‘Emo, love and god: making sense of Urban Dictionary.

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Understanding English Dictionaries

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