6 Times Judges Consulted Urban Dictionary

iStock
iStock

Since 1999, Urban Dictionary has been the online source for anyone trying to understand the latest slang terms. The crowdsourced dictionary, which now boasts millions of entries, is the go-to destination for anyone wondering what, exactly, it means to "Netflix and chill," or why their friends insist this weekend's gathering will be "lit."

But the site has also played a surprising role in courtrooms, as judges refer to the online dictionary to help them make decisions, and shed light on their written opinions. Here are six words and phrases whose Urban Dictionary definitions popped up during legal disputes.

1. "CATFISHING" 

"Catfishing," a term coined by filmmaker Nev Schulman, first entered the lexicon in 2010. Three years later, Indiana's Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson wrote that two roommates' attempt to humiliate their former roommate by posing as a young woman online fit Urban Dictionary's definition: "[t]he phenomenon of internet predators that fabricate online identities and entire social circles to trick people into emotional/romantic relationships (over a long period of time).'" The court ultimately ruled against the young men, who were challenging their school's decision to suspend them.

2. "HOE" 

In 1999, Nevada resident William Junge thought he'd honor his beloved ride, a Chevy Tahoe, with a personalized license plate. Alas: "TAHOE" was already taken, so Junge settled for the abbreviated "HOE." Junge renewed his plate every year until 2006, when a DMV employee who had consulted Urban Dictionary rejected the plate as offensive. After losing in a district court, the DMV brought the case to the Nevada Supreme Court. In their 2009 ruling, the state's justices determined that First Amendment rights extend to license plates too; by rejecting the plate based on one state employee's reading of Urban Dictionary, the Court argued that the DMV failed to show substantial evidence that the word is unacceptable. Urban Dictionary "allows, if not encourages, users to invent new words or attribute new, not generally accepted meanings to existing words," the justices wrote. "… A reasonable mind would not accept the Urban Dictionary entries alone as adequate to support a conclusion that the word 'HOE' is offensive or inappropriate." Junge got to keep his plate. 

3. "SHAKE IT LIKE A POLAROID PICTURE"

In 2012, controversial yogi Bikram Choudhury sued yoga instructors Mark Drost and Zefea Samson, founders of a studio called Evolation Yoga. Choudhury claimed that Drost and Samson, both graduates of his teacher training course, had stolen his signature method—a sequence of 26 poses done in a room heated to 105°F—which he outlined in a copyrighted 1979 instruction manual. Unfortunately for Choudhury, copyrights don't extend to ideas or systems—only to the expression of those ideas and systems. In their 2015 written decision, the United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit, repeatedly compare the sequence of poses championed by Choudhury to other processes not subject to copyright, such as recipes and "routinized physical movements, from brushing one's teeth to pushing a lawnmower to shaking a Polaroid picture." The Court concedes that works of choreography are copyrightable, and citing Urban Dictionary and WikiHow, admits that both "pushing a lawnmower" and "shaking it like a Polaroid picture" have been turned into dance moves. But, the Court argues, you can't print tooth-brushing or Polaroid-shaking instructions in a pamphlet, call them choreography, and claim a monopoly on those processes; the ideas behind the sequence of steps are uncopyrightable. 

4. "JACK"

In 2011, Devante Lumpkins and his two friends stole a minivan and used it to rob people at gunpoint. After police arrested Lumpkins, they recovered the stolen vehicle, a 2007 Hyundai Entourage. Because the van was damaged—the seat covers were burned, the mirror and CD player were destroyed, and the tires were worn—the court that convicted Lumpkins ordered that he also pay $1700 in restitution to the van’s owner. Unfortunately for Lumpkins, his crew's adopted name—"the Jack Boys"—didn't help his case. A Wisconsin court of appeals upheld the damages Lumpkins owed [PDF], citing Urban Dictionary's definition of "jack" in the written opinion (“to steal or take from an unsuspecting person or store”). The court ultimately decreed that Lumpkins owed the $1700, because the damages to the van wouldn't have occurred had he not, well, jacked it in the first place.

5. "STFU"

Richard G. Kopf, a federal judge in Nebraska, used to blog about the law in his spare time. In a 2014 post, he criticized the Supreme Court's majority opinion in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. "In the Hobby Lobby cases, five male justices of the Supreme Court, who are all members of the Catholic faith and who each were appointed by a Republican president, decided that a huge corporation … was a 'person' entitled to assert a religious objection to the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate because that corporation was 'closely held' by family members." Kopf wrote that the Supreme Court should stop “deciding hot button cases that the Court has the power to avoid,” as that gives the appearance of a political agenda (even if one doesn’t actually exist), concluding that the justices should "STFU"—and linking to Urban Dictionary's definition of the pointed acronym.

6. "HATERS GONNA HATE"

In a 2015 lawsuit, songwriter Jesse Braham claimed Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off" had ripped off his 2013 tune "Haters Gonna Hate." Braham was shut down by presumed T. Swift fan (and U.S. Magistrate judge) Gail J. Standish, who dismissed the $42 million suit, writing, "At present, the Court is not saying that Braham can never, ever, ever get his case back in court. But, for now, we have got problems, and the Court is not sure Braham can solve them." Standish went on to explain that Braham was hardly the first to use the phrases "haters gonna hate" and "players gonna play," citing a handful of Internet memes, 3LW's 2000 hit "Playas Gon' Play," and, yes, Urban Dictionary.

This Gorgeous Vintage Edition of Clue Sets the Perfect Mood for a Murder Mystery

WS Game Company
WS Game Company

Everyone should have a few good board games lying around the house for official game nights with family and friends and to kill some time on the occasional rainy day. But if your collection leaves a lot to be desired, you can class-up your selection with this great deal on the Vintage Bookshelf Edition of Clue for $40.

A brief history of Clue

'Clue' Vintage Bookshelf Edition.
WS Game Company.

Originally titled Murder!, Clue was created by a musician named Anthony Pratt in Birmingham, England, in 1943, and he filed a patent for it in 1944. He sold the game to Waddington's in the UK a few years later, and they changed the name to Cluedo in 1949 (that name was a mix between the words clue and Ludo, which was a 19th-century game.) That same year, the game was licensed to Parker Brothers in the United States, where it was published as Clue. Since then, there have been numerous special editions and spinoffs of the original game, not to mention books and a television series based on it. Most notably, though, was the cult classic 1985 film Clue, which featured Eileen Brennan, Tim Curry, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean, Martin Mull, and Lesley Ann Warren.

As you probably know, every game of Clue begins with the revelation of a murder. The object of the game is to be the first person to deduce who did it, with what weapon, and where. To achieve that end, each player assumes the role of one of the suspects and moves strategically around the board collecting clues.

With its emphasis on logic and critical thinking—in addition to some old-fashioned luck—Clue is a masterpiece that has stood the test of time and evolved with each decade, with special versions of the game hitting shelves recently based on The Office, Rick and Morty, and Star Wars.

Clue Vintage Bookshelf Edition

'Clue' Vintage Library Edition.
WS Game Company

The Vintage Bookshelf Edition of Clue is the work of the WS Game Company, a licensee of Hasbro, and all the design elements are inspired by the aesthetic of the 1949 original. The game features a vintage-looking game board, cards, wood movers, die-cast weapons, six pencils, an ivory-colored die, an envelope, and a pad of “detective notes.” And, of course, everything folds up and stores inside a beautiful cloth-bound book box that you can store right on the shelf in your living room.

Clue Vintage Bookshelf Edition is a limited-release item, and right now you can get it for $40.

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

Systemic vs. Systematic: How to Use Each Word Correctly

This woman systematically drinks orange juice while her creative juices are flowing.
This woman systematically drinks orange juice while her creative juices are flowing.
m-imagephotography/iStock via Getty Images

The English language is bursting with pairs of words so similar you might think they mean the same thing, even if one has an extra syllable in the middle. Some actually do mean the same thing—disorientated, for example, is a version of disoriented more commonly used in the UK, but they both describe someone who’s lost their bearings.

Others, like systemic and systematic, have different definitions. According to Dr. Paul Brians, a former Washington State University English professor and leading authority on grammar, systematic relates to an action that is done “according to some system or organized method.” If you sort your M&Ms by color and eat the blue ones last, you’re doing it systematically. Sometimes, Brians explains on his website, systematic is used when a behavior—however unintentional it may be—is so habitual that it seems to be the result of a system. If you forget to lock your front door every time you leave the house, someone might say that you have a systematic pattern of forgetfulness.

Systemic, meanwhile, describes something that happens inside a system or affects all parts of a system. It’s often used in scientific contexts, especially those that involve diseases or pesticides. If a cancer is systemic, that means it’s present throughout the body. If you’re describing how the cancer progressed, however, you could say it spread systematically from organ to organ. As Grammarist points out, systemic can also denote something that is “deeply ingrained in the system,” which helps explain why you sometimes hear it in discussions about social or political issues. When Theodore Roosevelt served as the New York City Police Commissioner, for example, his main goal was to stamp out the systemic corruption in the police department.

In short, systematic is used to describe the way a process is done, while systemic is used to describe something inside a system.

[h/t Grammarist]