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The East African : January 13th 2014
The EastAfrican MAGAZINE JANUARY 11-17,2014 books Online lexicon, updated by use≥s U≥ban Dictiona≥y gets mo≥e than 7 million definitions of wo≥ds and ph≥ases daily, w≥ites JENNA WORTHAM “twerked” onstage at MTV’s video music awards in late 2013. Then, they rushed to Urban Dictionary to figure out what that was — making “twerk” one of the mostsearched terms on the site all year. That is just one of many M examples of how Urban Dictionary, a crowd-sourced online dictionary that lets anyone contribute words and definitions, has become the anthropologist of the Internet, taking the pulse of the web and capturing cultural moments in real time. The site was started in 1999 by Aaron Peckham, then a college freshman. Since then, it has become an archive for nearly any new term or slang word, particularly those used to describe the behaviour and activities that have risen because of social media and the Web. More than 7 million definitions of words, acronyms and phrases are listed on the site, and 2,000 definitions are added daily. The site’s audience has grown steadily, as well. In October 2013, 8.4 million people checked the website monthly, up from 6 million in November 2010, according to comScore. Peckham says his own internal figures are higher. It has slowly crept into the collective and cultural consciousness as a default dictionary, with recent casual references by figures like Jon Stewart on The Daily Show and the morning hosts on Good Morning America. It has even become a source for judges trying to figure out the latest slang. Despite its audience and reach, Urban Dictionary is not the locus of most online activity. Words, photos and videos flood Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat, giving those sites their multibilliondollar value — or perceived value — and hype. Urban Dictionary, instead, has become the archive of all the words and phrases of this still-forming culture of social media, like “selfie,” “snapchat” and “status update.” And that is precisely what i l l i o n s watched and gossiped online as Miley Cyrus makes Urban Dictionary’s role important, said C.W. Anderson, a professor of media culture at the City University of New York. “The Internet is everywhere, but it has its own regional vernacular,” he said. “And those expressions move into standardised language. That process is occurring — like everything else — far more quickly. What’s different now is that it’s being transcribed and written down.” Urban Dictionary, he said, “allows us to see that process in real time.” “It’s something that other social and online media sites haven’t really done,” he added. Although Urban Dictionary predates Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, Twitter and even Facebook by a few years, it does not garner the double-digit stock price and billion-dollar bids from eager buyers that are standard fare in Silicon Valley. It is a more modest business, run by Peckham, its 32-year-old founder, out of his home in San Francisco. When Peckham has a meet- ing in the city, he borrows an office from friends who work at a development agency. But they have no affiliation or monetary involvement in his site or company, he said in an interview. Peckham, affable and good- natured, prides himself on his independent status, saying that he originally started the site because he did not like the idea that “a printed dictionary, which is updated rarely, tells you what thoughts are OK to have, what words are OK to say.” The child of a public-school teacher and an artist, Peckham has a history of making satirical Internet sites. While he was studying computer science at the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, he created a spoof of Ask Jeeves, the search engine. It wasn’t long before he received a cease-and-desist order. After he shut that site down, he turned his attention to a site that satirised Dictionary.com. “At first, all the content was by me and my friends, having fun,” he said. But after he graduated, he continued to tinker with the project, named Urban Dictionary, even though III BOOK SHORTS Lawyer fined for revealing author of detective novel Chris Gossage, the lawyer whose indiscreet chatter at home led to the public unmasking of J. K. Rowling as the author of “The Cuckoo’s Calling” — the detective novel that she published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith — has been fined $1,645 by the Solicitors Regulation Authority for breaking the authority’s client confidentiality rules. Mr Gossage, a partner at Russells Solicitors, also received a written rebuke. Ms Rowling published the book as Galbraith last April, but was quickly unmasked when a columnist for The Sunday Times of London learned her identity and confronted her. At the time, many people suspected that Ms Rowling herself was behind the leak, but Russells admitted that Mr Gossage was the source, having revealed Galbraith’s identity to his wife, who told her friend Judith Callegari, who passed the news to The Times columnist in a Twitter exchange. Danielle Steel awarded French ‘Legion of Honour’ Aaron Peckham, founder of Urban Dictionary. Picture: File he had a job at Google. That job didn’t last long though; after two years, he quit in 2008 to work on Urban Dictionary full time. “I just wanted to work on one project that represents me,” he said. Anyone can add a word, no matter how vulgar or controversial, to Urban Dictionary. As a result, much of the content is rated. Submissions are approved and rated by volunteers and visitors to the site. Peckham says he rarely edits something that other social and online media sites haven’t really done,” ‘‘ the site or removes words that could be deemed offensive, unless they are aimed at a specific person or reveal someone’s private information. He said it was rare that definitions appeared that were “really racist or sexist.” There may be differences of It’s opinion about that. But it is part of the price of being a site that operates on the back of user-generated content. Anderson, the media profes- sor, said that if Urban Dictionary stayed part of the “weird Internet,” it could probably continue as it has. But if the company decides to pursue a more mainstream path, he said, “that might pose more of a problem.” Peckham said the site’s con- tent had not deterred major advertisers and companies from partnering with him to market their wares, movies and products to Urban Dictionary’s growing audience, which is largely male and skews toward 15- to 24-year-olds. Urban Dictionary also reflects the fast pace of the Internet. With traditional dictionaries, it can take months or even years for new words and terms to be granted entry. That is eons in Internet time. Urban Dictionary offers an alternative space where words can be introduced and accepted in less than a day. “People have always been inventive with language,” said Katherine Connor Martin, the head of US Dictionaries at Oxford University Press, which publishes the Oxford Dictionaries and maintains the company’s own online dictionary. “In the 19th century, if young people were using slang terms among themselves, those worlds had to become very well entrenched before anything came into popular use,” she added. “Now, if someone invents a new word on Twitter, it can go viral.” New York Times News Syndicate New York Times News Syndicate Danielle Steel joined the ranks of Douglas McArthur, Julia Child, Walt Disney, Alan Greenspan and Bob Dylan, on January 1 when she became the latest American to receive France’s highest award, the Legion of Honour. Ms Steel, who has sold some 600 million books worldwide and lives in San Francisco and Paris, was made a “chevalier” of the order. In 2002, she was named an Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters, France’s top cultural honour. The Telegraph cited a comment Ms Steel once made about her influences: “Well, I always go back to the classics. I love French literature. Colette is a special favourite of mine.” Among the other honorees named on January 1 were the Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld, the actress Michele Morgan, and the circus performer and director James Thierrée. ‘Because’ wins word of the year award in America After a year dominated by upstarts like “selfie,” “bitcoin” and “twerk,” the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year honour for 2013 has gone to a seemingly old-hat vocabulary item: “Because.” Increasingly used to introduce a noun or adjective rather than a full clause — as in “because tired” or “because awesome” — “because” won in a landslide at the society’s annual meeting in Minneapolis, garnering 127 of 175 votes, well ahead of the runner-up, “slash” (as in “come and visit slash stay”).
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January 20th 2014