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Why Urban Dictionary Comes In Handy On The Witness Stand


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.

The use of slang in court can be tricky, especially in criminal cases. Judges and juries may not understand that to jack can translate as to steal, or that dap refers to a fist bump, usually used as a greeting. Slang changes quickly, might be regional, even local, and agreed definitions are not going to be found in Webster's or the OED. We'd like to hear from lawyers and judges in our audience today. When you come across a slang term you don't know or maybe worry that the jury may not know, how do you find an authoritative definition? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Leslie Kaufman is digital media reporter for The New York Times and joins us from studios at that newspaper. Good to have you with us today.


CONAN: And also on the line with us is Greg Lastowka. He's professor of law at Rutgers University and an expert on technology and the law. He joins us by phone from his home in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. Welcome to you too.


CONAN: And let's start with Leslie Kaufman. You wrote a piece on this for The New York Times and reported that lawyers and judges do pretty much like anyone else would do, they use the internet.

KAUFMAN: Well, sure. It makes sense. Judges and the courts see a lot of words before they make dictionaries. The nature of what they do, criminal cases, so on and so forth, have a lot of slang in them. So what is the answer? And so, they found a great resource online, which is Urban Dictionary.

CONAN: Urban Dictionary...

KAUFMAN: This is a crowd...

CONAN: Yeah, it's a crowd sourced dictionary, obviously. But crowd sourced, doesn't that cause problems?

KAUFMAN: Well, right. So crowd source basically means anyone who wants can write a definition of any word. They could, in theory, make it up and sometimes they do. And all you have to do is get five other people who are also online and who have signed up as editors, which you can do by a click of a button, to say it's a word. So it's not authoritative, but as it turns out, as words rise in popularity, they do actually have a kind of truth to them. And I don't know how to explain it except for the crowd does sort of weed out what's false.

CONAN: Greg, is there any standard for finding definitions for terms, well, that are unusual - street language?

LASTOWKA: Neal, legal standard?

CONAN: Yeah.

LASTOWKA: Not really. I mean, it's a question of fact what a particular meant in a particular context. And I think that Urban Dictionary is a pretty reliable way to find out what people think a particular word means. And there are some concerns about it, but it seems like it's a pretty solid source of evidence.

CONAN: Have you used it?

LASTOWKA: I've used it to find out what words have meant, you know, in an internet-based discussions. You know, when I hear somebody say something, I'll look it up on Urban Dictionary occasionally.

CONAN: And you find it to be accurate?

LASTOWKA: Not always. I mean, occasionally, they have word definitions that like, you know, high popularity due to the fact that they're funny. So occasionally, you know, it's inaccurate and, of course, there's a ton of definitions often for certain words in Urban Dictionary. And the lower-voted definitions of terms, they're usually inaccurate, so that's a mixed bag.

CONAN: Leslie Kaufman, some of the people you talked to expressed concerns about Urban Dictionary.

KAUFMAN: Right. Well, we talked to people who actually do run dictionaries, including dictionaries of slang. The way dictionaries prefer to work is they prefer to wait over time to see how a word plays out. They also prefer to see it in a variety of sources. And these people will actually testify in court as to what a slang word means, and their point is that Urban Dictionary, because it's so of the moment, it's so instantaneous, that it might really only reflect one small population's view of what a word meant and really shouldn't be used as a crowd source - as a court source.

CONAN: Yeah. But you mentioned in testimony, if something is being edited, a transcript of a wire tap or something like that, isn't somebody required to say - a police officer on the stand and say, and in this context, what did the word to jack mean?

KAUFMAN: Right. And the police officer could do that. The question is who's the more authoritative source? So a police officer could say that. And then the defense might say, oh, no, that's not what it means. And then you would have a couple of choices. You could turn to Urban Dictionary. Usually, if it's a term on which a whole case turns, the court will not turn to Urban Dictionary.

CONAN: Can you give us an example?

KAUFMAN: Of where they might use Urban Dictionary?

CONAN: Or where they might have pause.

KAUFMAN: Well, so, for instance, if you were to have a case of assault, for instance, or sexual harassment where the terms were all in contested. So I say you sexually harassed me and you called me X, Y and Z. If X, Y and Z aren't clearly sexually harassing terms, I think you'd have a case that you couldn't just use Urban Dictionary for all of them.

CONAN: You could not.

KAUFMAN: You could not, you know, for sexual harassment cases. But in those cases, only one or two terms were defined by Urban Dictionary. The others were clearly - I think anyone would recognize them as sexual terms.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. OK. Well, let's get some callers in on the conversation. We want to hear of instances where judges or lawyers had to turn to some source to find a definition for some term that might be unfamiliar in court. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Jim(ph), and Jim's with us from Eugene in Oregon.

JIM: Hey, good morning. Good to be with you today. You know, the point that I wanted to make, while I'm not an attorney, I have said - had some context into the - in the courtrooms. But for me, the perspective that I bring as a special educator and one that works in communication and behaviors is that when you put it into context, the smart lawyer in that situation is going to ask the individual who's using the slang to be able to put into some kind of context, have them explain what do they mean by that word because that is going to be the jargon which a jury is going to have - take note of and that gives them their opportunity to explain what they mean because there are many definitions, but it's what that individual means when they use that word. Putting it into context is the right way to go.

CONAN: So context, Greg Lastowka, is the key?

LASTOWKA: Context is really important. And, yes, if you can have a person testify as to what they meant when they used a particular word, that would certainly be important evidence. Occasionally, you know, people aren't completely truthful about what they meant by using a particular word so...

CONAN: Occasionally, you're may be right, yeah.

LASTOWKA: Yeah. So I believe that, you know, the thing that's interesting about Urban Dictionary is that it is, I think, admissible when relevant evidence. So the way the courts are using it often is as a kind of back-up source. If they, you know, have, like Leslie was saying, there's like a sexual harassment case with many remarks being made, and then there's one particular remark that seems, you know, hard to understand, we use Urban Dictionary in order to figure out what that particular remark means. And sometimes they'll do that in response, you know, I think ideally they'll do that in response to one of the parties admitting Urban Dictionary as a citation into evidence.

CONAN: I wonder, is the - isn't there a similar problem with, for example, terms of argot, you know, scientific, you know, scientific terminology or mathematical terminology that's not in the dictionary yet?

LASTOWKA: Well, yeah. That's actually a very important question, for instance, in patent litigation cases. And the federal circuit court of appeals, you know, often turns to dictionaries in order to figure out what particular patent specifications means. So the use of dictionaries by courts is pretty common. I would never, you know, or advise the court to use Urban Dictionary in the context of a scientific or technical term because in that case, you really need to have an expert defining what the term means, not crowdsourcing that particular piece of information.

CONAN: Jim, thanks very much for the call.

JIM: Oh, more than welcome. Take care.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to - this is Mike(ph), and Mike's on the line with us from Florida.

MIKE: Hey.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air, Mike. Go ahead.

MIKE: Oh, all right. Yeah, I'm a criminal defense attorney in Florida, driving back from court, listening to your program. There's two that I have. One is hit a lick. That is when somebody is going to - maybe say they're driving down a road and they see somebody and they say, let's hit a lick, meaning they're going to go rob the person or maybe the store. I had that come up. I had the defendant explain what he meant on the stand.

CONAN: I've only ever heard that term in baseball when I couldn't hit a lick, and I never could in my career.


MIKE: Yeah. Well, yes, that's it. I did use Urban Dictionary myself to make sure that that's, you know, it was all good and that's what he was talking about. The other one is, which has become ubiquitous in the legal field, is being picked up is - or in terms of arrested. I mean, judges say it, everybody. Well, he was picked up. Yesterday, judge, he was picked up, meaning he was arrested.

CONAN: And that's just become common parlance.

MIKE: It's common. And in fact, I've heard it in, like popular culture, in shows like legal shows and whatnot, being picked up.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much. And we hope you drive carefully and don't get picked up.


MIKE: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. And this kind of terminology, Leslie Kaufman, illustrates the problem. These terms change really quickly.

KAUFMAN: They do change. I actually remember seeing hit a lick in one of the court cases. I wonder whether the gentleman who just called was responsible for that. But they do change very quickly, but that's also the advantage of Urban Dictionary. I think, you know, when you have words changing as quickly as they are now, and all the dictionary experts I talked to said language is evolving at this very rapid speed, maybe you need Urban Dictionary more than ever.

CONAN: Let's see if we get another caller in. This is Rebecca(ph). Rebecca on the line with us from Murfreesboro in Tennessee.


CONAN: Go ahead, please.

REBECCA: I am an attorney. And 20 years ago, I was defending a rape trial. The defendant had made the statement: I got me some. And the court would not take judicial notice of what that meant. We all understand that that was essentially an admission of guilt. But the young woman who was the victim did not understand the clinical terms for the sexual anatomy, and the court could not convict my client even though he probably was guilty because the slang was not admissible at that point in time.

CONAN: And did the judge try to find some definition that would work for everybody?

REBECCA: Twenty years ago there were not the resources available. And he simply ruled that he could not take judicial notice of what it meant and found the defendant not guilty. This was in juvenile court, and it was a case that was tried by the judge.

CONAN: So no jury, yeah.

REBECCA: No jury. And at the time, I was happy that my clients had won the case. But 20 years later, I'm not sure that that was the right thing.

CONAN: It's an interesting question because what happened to that young man and what may he have done subsequently. Don't know. Rebecca, thank you very much for the phone call.

REBECCA: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about the use of slang in court testimony and transcripts and, well, how judges and juries and lawyers arrive at agreed definitions. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And our guests are Greg Lastowka, professor of law at Rutgers University, an expert on technology on the line - and the law. He's on the line with us from his home in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. Also with us, Leslie Kaufman, digital media reporter for The New York Times, who wrote a story on this for that newspaper. Let's see if we go next to Gary(ph), and Gary's with us from Des Moines.

GARY: Hi there. I wanted to make the point that I don't think that we should minimize the usage of Urban Dictionary simply because it's crowdsourced. You know, the Oxford English Dictionary when it was originally compiled, was essentially crowd source. There's a great book a few years ago by...

CONAN: Simon Winchester, "The Professor and the Madman." And...

GARY: Exactly.

CONAN: And the editors used a lot of people to write definitions, but there were editors. It's not quite the same with a crowdsource site.

GARY: OK. Yeah, and I was also going to make the point, you know, here in Iowa, we've had a Supreme Court case where the court had to define a term they used the Urban Dictionary and a Supreme Court opinion to define the term jungle juice in a...

CONAN: Did you find that citation as you investigated this, Leslie Kaufman?

KAUFMAN: You know, I don't remember seeing jungle juice. I might have put it in the story. And what does jungle juice mean?

GARY: It's an alcoholic concoction. My law school classmate of mine was actually the law clerk who helped write that. That's why it came to mind. But it's just a mix of a bunch of different liquors, kind of like Trashcan Punch or something like that I think is what we call it when I was an undergrad. But, you know, the court had to find the definition for that, so it's (unintelligible) to Urban Dictionary for that.

CONAN: All right.

KAUFMAN: Excellent.

CONAN: It's interesting, Gary. Thank you very much.

GARY: Yeah. Thank you.

CONAN: All right. This is an email from Jim(ph) in Florida: I sat on a jury, aggravated battery case. The witness said the confrontation was over kicks. I found out later this meant shoes. At the time, I thought they said kicks, as in for fun. I think if I'd known during the trial, I would've been able to render a better opinion during deliberations. And, Greg Lastowka, that suggests that maybe somebody either could've or should've come up with a better definition for kicks.

LASTOWKA: Right. You know, I think that if you're an attorney representing a client and there's a word that you think that the, you know, judge doesn't understand, it's important to, you know, bring a definition of that word to the judge's attention, you know, if at all possible. And now it is with a quick Internet search.

CONAN: Go ahead, Leslie.

KAUFMAN: I think what - Greg made a point to me when I interviewed him for my story, which is if normally if you had a - previously if you had a real trouble with the word, it would've been an expensive problem to solve. You would've had to essentially hire an expert who would've gone out and done a street survey about what a word meant. In essence, Urban Dictionary does that for you.

CONAN: Hmm. That's an interesting way to think of it.

LASTOWKA: Right. It's interesting. And there's some, you know, comparisons to Wikipedia, which is essentially a, you know, an online crowdsource site to, you know, produce encyclopedia entry kind of information. But the other thing about Urban Dictionary, I think, is that it's about language uses. And language uses is basically popularly defined in the first place. So I think in some ways, it's a more reliable source of evidence than Wikipedia.

CONAN: Let's get one more caller in. I'd go Ivan(ph), and Ivan is on the line with us from Tampa.

IVAN: Yes, hi. For a brief period, I had to work as an English-Spanish interpreter in the court system. So one more wrinkle is when you're translating from Spanish to English and the witness or the person being deposed chooses slang in their native language. It is now up to the interpreter to come up with something that slang cannot be directly translated and it's nonsensical in English, and then it's up the interpreter to come up with an equivalent slang in English. And then - and so that leaves a lot of it up the interpretation, so to speak, of the interpreter.

CONAN: And did you ever have anybody challenge your slang interpretation - no, no, no, that doesn't mean that?

IVAN: Well, there was one time where I just had no idea what the person really meant because, again, from, different nationalities, they may use different slang. So I have no choice. What I did there was I actually just literally interpreted it, literally translated it so that the lawyer could then ask well, what did you mean by that? And then I could ask that again back into Spanish because I had no idea, and I certainly didn't want to flavor it with my - with what I though it meant.

CONAN: I understand. Leslie Kaufman, that puts a different spin on things entirely.

KAUFMAN: It does. But what's very interesting is Urban Dictionary has slang for different languages. So I actually found in my search of court cases there was - one of the sexual harassment cases had all sorts of terms in - oh, I guess it was a hostile workplace case - had all sorts of terms in Spanish. On one hand, there were Colombians and the other, they were El Salvadorians. And there were slangs in Spanish that were particular insults among different populations from different countries. And Urban Dictionary was used for all of them. They had the words.

CONAN: Ivan, thanks very much for the call.

IVAN: Thank you.

CONAN: And you can find a link to Leslie Kaufman's article, "For the Word on the Street, Courts Call Up an Online Witness," at our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Leslie Kaufman and Greg Lastowka, thank you for your time today. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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