Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote: “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”
No limits, however, seem to apply to the Internet-based Urban Dictionary created in 1999 by Aaron Peckham during his freshman year at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. By November 2013, Peckham had already archived more than 7.3 million words.
The first entry he accepted was “The Man” — you remember that one — which the contributor defined as “the faces of ‘the establishment’ put in place to ‘bring us down.’”
The legitimacy of the Urban Dictionary was recognized in 2011 when agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, seeking to document the criminal threat inherent in the word “murk,” cited the source during a court case.
“People have always been inventive with language,” Katherine Connor Martin, head of U.S. Dictionaries at Oxford University Press, told the Sydney Morning Herald.
“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.”
Social media has goosed the growth of the Urban Dictionary more than any other factor. Imagine the number of people who decided to Google “twerk” after Miley Cyrus demonstrated the lascivious move at the Video Music Awards and ended up at www.urbandictionary.com.
Still, even though the Urban Dictionary predates Instagram, Snappchat, Tumblr, Twitter and even Facebook, “it does not,” according Jenna Wortham at the Economic Times, “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.”
Peckham is presently in the process of gathering votes for the 2013 Urban Word of the Year. Don’t feel badly if you don’t recognize the finalists — it’s a generational thing.
The phrase “said no one ever” has racked up enough votes to qualify for fifth place. Often employed as a Twitter hashtag, “said no one ever” has been used to mock something that is generally unpopular and disliked on image macros or in the text of such e-cards as “Thank God it’s Monday — said no one ever.”
In fourth place is “selfie,” a photo taken of oneself (deliberately not looking into the phone camera lens) and subsequently uploaded onto a social networking website. Supposedly originating on Myspace, the “selfie” is usually disparaged as the act of a soul so friendless that he or she is forced to DIY.
I once witnessed a teenager leaping into the air in front of the Mona Lisa. In the “selfie” snapped on her iPhone, she was actually blocking out the most valued ($772 million) painting in the world.
In third place is “YOLO,” the acronym for “you only live once.” YOLO has become the time-honored yet uber-lame excuse for making but another stupid decision.
Inquiring Mind: “Hey, I heard u broke ur leg falling off the balcony at that party last week.”
Born Loser: “Ya, man, but YOLO!”
Like LOL, LMAO or ROTFL, which also got their historic start on Usenet, YOLO has grown pervasive among computer-mediated as well as face-to-face communication. And like LOL, LMAO and ROTFL, YOLO has proved just as annoying when employed as an oral knee-jerk response that allows a twenty-something communicator to avoid any semblance of critical thinking.
In second place is “please advise” or the conventional corporate jargon for “What (the heck) is wrong with you?”
Example: “Dear Jim, I have not yet received the case files I requested last week. Please advise, John.”
While other text acronyms might seem more to the point, “please advise” appears more professional if/when attorneys get involved.
In first place is “ratchet,” which the Urban Dictionary has defined as “A diva, mostly from urban cities and ghettos, that has reason to believe she is every man’s eye candy. Unfortunately, she’s wrong.”
She can be recognized, according to various Urban Dictionary’s crowd-sourced definitions, by her overuse of “YOLO,” “actually” or “twerk;” her thrice-dyed weave, torn fishnets or unpolished 8-inch heels — as well as her mind-numbing stupidity. Raps by LL Cool J and Juicy J only fueled the further mortification of the so-called “ratchet” woman.
Yet, such megastars as Beyoncé and Lady Gaga, via songs and Instagram “selfies” featuring door knocker earrings inscribed with the r-word, are attempting to morph the insult into a compliment.
The working-class South meaning of ratchet is “not necessarily negative. You could say ‘I’m ratchet’ to say ‘I’m real. I’m ghetto. I am what I am,’” Earl Williams, a producer known as Phunk Dawg, explained to New York Magazine.
And there it is — the elasticity of meaning — allowing our minds to know no limits.
Except for the 140-character limit on Twitter, that is.