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.
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.
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.
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.
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. (On a related note, the songwriters behind 3LW’s song sued Swift in 2017 for copyright infringement, claiming that “Shake It Off” stole their lyrics. The case is ongoing.)
A version of this story ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2022.