Urban Dictionary is a crowdsourced online dictionary for slang words and phrases, operating under the motto “Define Your World.” Originally, Urban Dictionary was intended as a dictionary of slang or cultural words and phrases, not typically found in standard dictionaries, but it is now used to define any word, event, or phrase (including sexually explicit content). Words or phrases on Urban Dictionary may have multiple definitions, usage examples, and tags. As of 2014, the dictionary had over seven million definitions, while around 2,000 new entries were being added daily.
The site was founded in 1999 by Aaron Peckham while he was a freshman computer science major at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. He launched the site to compare urban slang used by university students in different parts of California. He had previously created a spoof version of the Ask Jeeves web search engine while studying at Cal Poly but closed the website after he received an infringement letter. He created Urban Dictionary initially as a parody of actual dictionaries, which he thought tended to be “stuffy” and “take themselves too seriously”.
For the first five years, the site generated revenue without making a profit, but did not appear to incur any costs. In 2003, the website gained wider attention after a news article revealed that the United Kingdom (UK) high court judges had used Urban Dictionary to assist them in a case involving two rappers (the judges unsuccessfully attempted to comprehend the slang language that the rappers used).
By 2009, the site had listed around 4 million entries and received about 2,000 new submissions per day. In April 2009, the site registered 15 million unique visitors, while 80 percent of its monthly users were younger than 25. In July 2009, Peckham explained to The New York Times that Urban Dictionary is not Wikipedia, because it doesn’t attempt neutrality: “Every single word on Urban Dictionary is written by someone with a point of view, with a personal experience of the word in the entry.”
The website was later referenced in a 2011 District Court complaint by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) agents to document the meaning of the vulgarism “murk”, as used in a criminal threat.
Over a 30-day period in March and April 2011, 67,000 people wrote 76,000 new definitions for Urban Dictionary, while 3,500 volunteer editors were registered. In an April 2011 article in The Guardian titled “In praise of urban dictionaries”, Peckham revealed an overview of 10 rules that he had devised for the site’s content: “Publish celebrity names, but reject ‘real life’ names. Reject nonsense, inside jokes or anything submitted in capital letters. Racial and sexual slurs are allowed, racist and sexist entries are not.”
At the start of 2014, 32-year-old Peckham resided in San Francisco, US, and, while he did not reveal exact figures, he informed the media that the site was “stable and growing”, and generated enough profit for both him and the site’s maintenance. Peckham continued as the site’s sole employee and maintained that he was not interested in venture funding or an initial public offering (IPO): “It is weird to be in Silicon Valley and want to be independent and not be on track to IPO or want an acquisition… but I think something special would be sacrificed if that were to happen.” The site’s audience at this stage was predominantly male and aged between 15 and 24.
As of 5th January 2014, 50% of the site’s traffic was mobile, the iPhone app had been downloaded nearly three million times. Although English entries were by far the most common prior to the multilingual transition, some words from languages that have been incorporated or assimilated into English-speaking societies were published, including those from Swahili, Arabic, and the Fula languages.
As of July 2020, the dictionary had over 12 million definitions.
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