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The Reliability of Reference Materials

jaranda's picture

In class, we have talked about the idea of where dictionaries and reference materials fall on the spectrum of reliable sources. On a spectrum where one end was reliable and the other unreliable, we came to the conclusion that these types of materials were considered much closer to the reliable end. With traditional dictionaries, like the Oxford English Dictionary, there is usually an unseen authority that decides what words are worthy of being included. Urban Dictionary, which is much less traditional, has definitions approved by users who can sign up to be an editor of the dictionary for free. Should dictionaries really be considered more reliable only if they have a select group of people deciding what belongs in a reference book, or should everyone be able to contribute? From an standardization standpoint, it might seem odd to allow any and all definitions of a word into a place that is as respected as the Oxford English Dictionary or Merriam-Webster, which is widely available for purchase. On the other hand, Urban Dictionary seems to be the definitive place to go to find the definitions of more than five million slang words. 

Unlike the OED, “all the definitions on Urban Dictionary were written by people just like you.”[1] The site gives some advice for all potential contributors when they say to write for a large audience, and to give background information and examples. Whether the word gets daily use, or was made up thirty seconds ago, if there are enough approval votes, then the word gets published. Getting a word approved in a matter or minutes might take away from the reliability of a reference tool, but people seem to like the ability to create their own definitions. With the countless words that are frequently submitted and added, it is at the same time hard to keep up and also a testament to how quickly the English language can change. “Our current language is in a spiral of constant amendment because of our affinity for new and personal ways to describe, label and mock modern occurrences. It can be a source of reference to some who perhaps do not feel compelled to be the one constantly asking, ‘What does that mean?’”[2]   

The Oxford English Dictionary and Urban Dictionary have different approaches to the preservation of the English language. The OED’s tagline on the website describes the dictionary as “The definitive record of the English language.” The OED also states that it is the ‘accepted authority on the evolution of the English language over the last millennium. It is an unsurpassed guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of over half a million words, both present and past.”[3] The Urban Dictionary does not have it’s own “about” page, but at the top of its’ homepage it states: “Urban Dictionary is the dictionary you wrote. Define your world.” While the OED works to define words from the around the English-speaking world, and includes the etymological arc of each word, Urban Dictionary encourages the users to define whatever they want.   

Letting anyone submit a word and definition to Urban Dictionary is a freeing idea, but there are some problems. “Urban Dictionary avoids most of the standard dictionary apparatus. You won’t find information about parts of speech, etymologies or even standard spellings in it. It’s sensibility, in fact, borders on the illiterate, which must be a first for a dictionary. It’s also packed with redundancies and made-up entries.”[4] At least the exclusive nature of the OED seems to ensure that only the most accurate definitions will be included in both their print and online versions of the dictionary. The seemingly limitless Internet, and the openness of Urban Dictionary means that the number of words and definitions included are extremely high.    

Both of these dictionaries serve pretty different purposes in terms of what they are used to define. Just because one might have a more authoritative air, does not mean that the other does not have its’ own uses. When someone needs the definition of a slang word they know that they will likely get a good one from Urban Dictionary, but one wouldn’t really go there to find the etymology of any word – slang or otherwise. It seems as though the question of reliability relates to our recurring question of reality. Who ultimately decides what is reliable or not? Based on the knowledge that each of the dictionaries as a specific strength, it probably really just comes down to what kind of definition one wants to read. Urban Dictionary not only serves as a place to define slang from around the world, but it is also a form of entertainment, especially when a user clicks on the “random” button to – maybe this is obvious – get a random word from the five million available. The OED has established itself as the authority on the history of words and their definitions, and with this authority, the OED comes across as a very reliable source. Reliability, like reality, is subject to countless interpretations. Determining reliability of reference materials falls to the reader since they have to take the information they read and then decide what to do with it.         


Works Cited: 

"About the Oxford English Dictionary." Oxford English Dictionary: The Definitive Record of the English Language. Web. 29 Oct. 2010. <>.

Busick, Cecillia. "When Language Moves from Urban to Urbane." NYU Washington Square News. 18 Oct. 2010. Web. 29 Oct. 2010. <>.

Heffernan, Virginia. "Street Smart: Urban Dictionary." The New York Times. 1 July 2009. Web. 29 Oct. 2010. <>. 

Urban Dictionary, October 29: Subprime Rib. Web. 29 Oct. 2010. <http://www.urb

[1] Urban Dictionary: Add a definition (

[2] “When language moves from urban to urbane” (

[3] About the Oxford English Dictionary (

[4] Street Smart: Urban Dictionary ( 


Anne Dalke's picture

"Define your world"

Yours is the third essay I've read this afternoon that was inspired by our in-class work w/ dictionaries; see the projects by both Owl and smacholdt for some different exploratory directions ....

The main line of your thinking seems to center around the question of "expertise"--and so puts me in mind of the conversation we had about the "fallibility of experts," highlighted by Orson Welles' film F for Fake. That whole film took direct aim @ "experts" who "speak to us with the absolute authority of the computer," and so create mazes in which the rest of us can be extensively taken in, or @ least lose ourselves ....

You asked, last month, whether reality t.v. was "real or fake"; I guess that I see you asking some parallel questions now, about how "fake" Urban Dictionary is and how "real" (or "reliable, that is trustworthy, that is real) the O.E.D.: "Should dictionaries really be considered more reliable only if they have a select group of people deciding what belongs in a reference book," you ask, "or should everyone be able to contribute?" "Who ultimately decides what is reliable?" And what is our relationship to the experts?

The language of the "exclusive," the "definitive" and the "authoritative," with which the OED site leads, is strikingly different, as you point out, from the invitation issued by the Urban Dictionary to "define your world." One critic you quote dismisses such a sensibility as "illiterate"; I might suggest that it's precisely the opposite: a claiming of authority and self-definition that could constitute the very definition of "literate"--i.e. one who can read, and accurately interpret, the word and the world. If (as you say) "reliability, like reality, is subject to countless interpretations," then --hey! surely, the more interpretations, the better?

I mentioned to smacholdt that a student taught me, last year, about a new language movement called "e-prime," which aims to replace the English language verb form "to be" w/ phrases more descriptive of the fluidity of perception... This is surely a "testament to how quickly the English language can change," and a prod to our dictionaries to change, in form and method, along w/ it...