Urban Dictionary: The Speech Therapist’s Secret Weapon

wordle for this article

Wordle for this article

One of the most exciting things about language is that it’s in constant flux. Each and every day, new words get coined or new usages of old words appear. Sometimes, old words roll back the stone of the tomb and undergo an amazing resurrection. It’s also almost impossible to go through 24 hours without getting into a discussion – or argument – about words and meanings, with everyone eager to toss their own hats into the linguistic ring and fight to the metaphorical death for their interpretation of the “rightness” or “wrongness” of how we speak. Get five people around a table at a bar in the evening and you’ve got the makings of a damn good night out.

At some point in the intercourse, someone is pretty much guaranteed to whip out their smartphone of choice in an attempt to prove they are right.  (“Look, I’ll prove to you that fritiniency[1] is a real word!”)

The big question to ask at that point is; which dictionary are you using? There are so many to choose from, and so it’s not good enough to define a “real” world as “one that’s in the dictionary” unless you’re prepared to back it up with citing your source. I stand by [2] the hard-cover 1989 2nd edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary as my touchstone, along with its online edition, which has the advantage of adding new words at regular intervals. It is possible to have access to the online version on your smartphone (I have it on my Droid) but it can be costly if you don’t have access to an account at a university library [3].

After that, I’m a sucker for the online Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, which I use extensively for words that either have an American origin or American meanings that are aren’t reflected in the OED. I also recommend the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English because it is primarily aimed at language learners and so has fairly simple definitions.

But for sheer audacity, profanity, fun, and currency, the Urban Dictionary is hard to beat. In fact, I’d say it can’t be beaten. It’s based on popular vote rather than any scholarly or scientific measurement, so just about anybody can submit a word and folks then vote on whether it’s a “word” or not. Lexicographers – professionals who study words for inclusion in dictionaries – don’t really see the UD as a “dictionary” but more as a dumping ground for hopeful monsters.  For example, as I type, the “Word of the Day” (9/9/11) is party hats, which is defined (by someone called “logos”) as “erect and pointed nipples.” The demonstration sentence is “hey, it must be cold outside because your mom has got her party hats on.” Interestingly, it also has the definition from 2005 of “Brittish [sic] (and occassionaly [sic] American) slang for condoms.”

Party hats

Party hats

UD is littered with such words and definitions. According to the site’s tagline, there have been 6,069, 024 definitions since 1999, and there’s a good chance that 6,069,000 won’t ever make it to the OED. But what you do get from skipping through this tsunami of trivia is a sense of how people understand words. You find out so much about how the man on the Clapham omnibus or Joe Sixpack sees language.

Let’s look at the party hats example simply because it is so current. First, the most obvious thing that stands out – pun intended – is that this is a compound noun made up of two already existing words. Using old words to build new ones is a common enough feature of English, and whether or not Mr. Average can actually tell you that you can use two bound morphemes to create a compound, he can do it! We can also see that it demonstrates the use of a plural morpheme. There is no example of it being used in the singular to refer to a nipple but type “party hat” nipple into Google (the quotes do an exact search and ignores “party hats”) you will find folks using it in the singular. For the really curious, you might want to look at how the UD defines the singular party hat; it has many more connotations than nipple!

Another crucial thing to notice is that people have a knowledge of metaphor that may well exceed their ability to explain it. To use party hats for “cold nipples” requires an understanding that words are inherent polysemous i.e. they have many meanings, and that such polysemy can be guided by semantic features. In this case, it is the semantic feature of “looks like.” In fact, this sound very much like the reasoning behind using Semantic Feature Analysis as a therapy tool; and that’s because it is!

This is the “secret weapon” element to accessing the Urban Dictionary – if you are allowed to [4″]! A stunning number of entries in the UD can be broken down by associative meanings. One of our #SLPeeps friends on Twitter, @kimberlyslp, tweeted just yesterday that “Kids don’t know words until they understand the semantic relations between them” followed closely by “Word retrieval improved when child knows the connections between words – the words are now closer together.”

Now do you see the link between how people use the Urban Dictionary and how humans learn words? The use of semantic relations isn’t just a “nice thing to do” it is, in fact, and essential! For a kid to know that the word glasses can refer to both things you wear to help you see and things you drink from, they have to comprehend the underlying semantic association of <MADE-FROM>; to know that swing is both an action and a noun, they have to understand <ACTION> as an associative strategy.

OK, so I’m not suggesting you necessarily start working on teaching the associative strategy of to your kids using the Urban Dictionary’s party hat – although I know a few young adults  and adults who’d revel in such wickedness! – the general point is that trawling the UD to see what real people use to make word associations is a great way to get new ideas for your teaching strategies.

The more masochistic readers – or sadistic educators looking for new articles to toss out to their students – might like to try to get hold a paper by Grondin et al (2008) entitled Shared features dominate semantic richness effects for concrete concepts [5]. Although the specific research is focused on noun-based association strategies, it is generally aimed at adding to the body of knowledge that suggests;

One factor that has emerged as important in understanding the computation of word meaning is the richness of a word’s semantic representation. Specifically, in many experimental tasks, participants respond more quickly to words having richer semantic representations. (p.1)

And the Urban Dictionary has no shortage of “rich semantic representations” on offer.

David Crystal, who once complained about being described as a “national treasure” because it sounded like he was dead, has a short, readable article online called Teaching Vocabulary: The Case for a Semantic Curriculum, which outlines the concept of using semantic fields as the basis for vocabulary teaching. Well worth downloading, although the quality of the scan is a little grainy.

There are a number of free “semantic feature” grids available out there on the interweb thingy but if you don’t want to expend extra energy by clicking to leave this page and go search, here is the Speech Dudes’s very own SFA Sheet 9-9-11 in a soothing shade of green. Feel free to print as many copies as you want and share with folks. It’s in PDF so anyone should be able to get a copy.

Semantic Feature Analysis sheet

SFA Sheet

[1] And yes indeed, fritiniency IS a real word, which dates back to 1646, and sometimes you may see it as fritinancy. It means “to twitter” and anyone following the Speech Dudes is fritiniencing on a daily basis. It comes from the Latin fritinnire, which means “to twitter” along with the noun-creating suffix, –ancy, which also derives from Latin.  There’s also a genus of plant called fritillaria, so called because ones of its defining visual characteristics is a checkered appearance reminiscent of a dice box – and the Latin for “dice box” is frittilus. This comes from the same root as fritiniency and refers to the sound of dice shaking, which is like the twittering of birds and crickets. Stick around – the Dudes have LOTS of trivia like this to share 😉

[2] Literally. I have my OED stacked on a narrow, four-shelf bookcase that’s taller than I am. This either demonstrates how big the OED books are or how short I am.

[2] If you are not a member of a university library, you are making a big mistake. Big. Huge! Most universities – or maybe just the good ones – will let you be a member, which also gets you access to online databases that include more journals than you can imagine. Trendy as it might be to think that a combination of Google and Wikipedia is all you need to find “facts” and “truth,” those big building filled with square paper things we call “books” are still useful. So do yourself a really, really big favor and go to your nearest big university library and sign up.

[4] Another fritinancer in the SLP twitterverse is the prolific @SLPTanya, who revealed in a moment of weakness that her palce of work didn’t allow access to the Urban Dictionary because it is deemed inappropriate. So it may well be that wherever you work could have some limitations on website access established by the High Poobahs of the System Administrators. You may have to simply sneak access by other means and keep the UD as a guilty pleasure. Sometimes I think downloading porn would be more acceptable to some system admins…

[5] Grondin, R., Lupker, S.J. and McRae. K. (2009). Shared features dominate semantic richness effects for concrete concepts. Journal of Memory and Language, 60, 1-9.


2 responses to “Urban Dictionary: The Speech Therapist’s Secret Weapon

  1. Pingback: Learning to Love the Spam | The Speech Dudes

  2. Pingback: Urban Dictionary | TagHall

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