Urban Dictionary in the courtroom

800px-Dictionary_discard2I’d like to share with you a very interesting article from the New York Times which describes how courts in the United States are increasingly turning to the website Urban Dictionary when terms at issue can’t be found in more traditional dictionaries.

Several points emerge – the need for linguists as expert witnesses; choice and quality of dictionaries; the use of dictionaries by judges (see another NYT article here); the authority of crowdsourced resources; the speed of language change…

Below are a couple of interesting quotes from the article to start off a discussion – do write in and share your thoughts.

Greg Lastowka, a professor of law at Rutgers specializing in Internet and property law. “If it is Urban Dictionary or hire some linguistic expert to do a survey, it seems like a pretty cheap, pretty good alternative for the court.”

Tom Dalzell, senior editor of a dictionary of slang and unconventional English:
Using them in court is a terrible idea; they don’t claim to be an authority or a reference,” and “Some of the stuff on their site is very good, but there is more chaff than wheat. It is a lazy person’s resource.”

See the whole article on the New York Times website: For the word on the street, courts call up an online witness“.

Further reading

Miller, J. C. and Murray, H. B. (2010). Wikipedia in Court: When and How Citing Wikipedia and Other Consensus Websites Is Appropriate. St. John’s Law Review, Vol. 84 Iss. 2, Article 2. Available at: http://scholarship.law.stjohns.edu/lawreview/vol84/iss2/2

Kirchmeier, J. L. and Thumma, S. A. (2010). Scaling the Lexicon Fortress: The United States Supreme Court’s Use of Dictionaries in the Twenty-First Century. Marquette Law Review, Vol. 94 Iss. 1(3). 77.
Available at: http://scholarship.law.marquette.edu/mulr/vol94/iss1/3 (Mac users may need to use software other than Preview to open the PDF).

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hand gesture body languageYou might also be interested in this post including a report on a presentation involving dictionaries in South African courts, and this post on the Taniguchi case (the linked Supreme Court transcript contains many discussions on dictionaries).

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