Analysis: research has found that nearly 10% of the crowd-sourced online dictionary of contemporary slang contains misogynistic content

By Debbie Ging, Theo Lynn and Pierangelo Rosati, DCU

Urban Dictionary is a crowd-sourced online dictionary of contemporary slang which attracts approximately 80 million users per month. It is currently ranked as the 23rd most popular website in the US and the 10th most popular in the dictionary and encyclopaedias category worldwide. Google Analytics data suggest that 45% of the site's users are 18 to 24 years of age. In other words, it is reasonable to presume that how words are defined on Urban Dictionary is of considerable social and political importance, especially among young people.

Unlike other online dictionaries such as Wiktionary or Merriam-Webster, Urban Dictionary does not have inclusion criteria based on usage frequency. Any user can upload a new headword and definition, and content is moderated by volunteer editors. Despite guidelines which ban "made-up violent sexual acts" and the endorsement of discrimination, anyone who has used the platform, especially to look up slang words related to sex or gender, will be aware that relatively large numbers of entries proactively endorse racism, misogyny and sexual violence.

It is surprising, therefore, that relatively little research has been done on Urban Dictionary, and that which has been done tends to assume that it reflects natural developments in everyday language, driven by intellectual progress or organic human creativity. We used machine learning to analyse the entire Urban Dictionary data set from 1999–2016 and investigate both the extent and nature of misogynistic content. We also carried out a smaller-scale manual content analysis of a data set comprised of a random monthly snapshot of the 30 top trending words from September 2017 to April 2018.

Urban Dictionary claims to reflect changing developments in everyday language, but our analysis challenge this assumption 

The algorithm found that 9.53% of the entire Urban Dictionary data set featured misogynistic content. We were also interested to discover that the majority of the most popular definitions (measured by thumbs up) were not for neologisms but for established words such as "sex", "pussy", "blow job", "feminist" and "slut". In addition to this, we identified an implicit male subjectivity in many of the definitions, where men are described doing sexual things to women, as well as a more explicit male mode of address, where the poster assumes he is speaking to other men ("when you put your dick…").

The manual content analysis, conducted on a corpus of 240 headwords (a total of 2,899 definitions), revealed an even higher level of misogynistic content, averaging at 14.2%. The average percentage of definitions that employed an explicitly male mode of address was also significantly high at 21.1%.

From the trending words dataset, we generated a smaller dataset of specifically sex- or gender-related headwords. These headwords constituted 28.6% of the entire trending dataset. Of the 776 definitions pertaining to these headwords, 30.4% were misogynistic and 38.1% employed an explicitly male mode of address. We found no examples of misandry, no descriptions of violent sexual acts performed by women on men and only one definition that employed an explicitly female mode of address.

It is clear that vast numbers of Urban Dictionary's neologisms are not in widespread use but are terms "made up"

Qualitative analysis of this dataset revealed a number of recurring themes, the most salient of which was sexual violence against women. The acts described derive in large part from misogynistic porn, and include defecation (sometimes tagged as #scatporn), ejaculation, vomiting, spitting and urinating in and on women, punching women during sex and forcing large objects into women’s bodies.

The dataset also revealed multiple terms of disgust for women, either relating to their looks, intelligence or "promiscuity", as well as disgust for women’s genitalia. Many of the definitions were also characterised by the dehumanization of women, frequently referred to as "a bitch", "a ho", "some piece of ass" or "your mom". We also identified numerous discourses associated with the anti-feminist rhetoric of online men’s rights activists. In particular, the language of evolutionary psychology was strongly evident in the referencing of such concepts as hypergamy, negging, the cock carousel, Ameriskanks, cucks, etc.

Urban Dictionary claims to reflect changing developments in everyday language usage, and it is widely understood as an inclusive and democratic space, but our analysis challenges both these assumptions. Firstly, the definitions that attract the most traffic (both thumbs up and thumbs down) in the Urban Dictionary database as a whole are predominantly existing words. Many of these have been redefined, discredited or mocked to suit specific ideological (anti-feminist, misogynist) agendas.

The scale and nature of the misogyny indicates that a subset of Urban Dictionary's users are mobilising the platform to weaponise sex against women

Secondly, it is clear that vast numbers of Urban Dictionary’s neologisms are not in widespread use but are terms "made up" to describe a repertoire of degrading sexual acts performed on women (e.g. "Alaskan snow dragon", "Cincinnati switcheroo", "Alabama hot pocket", "Canada’s history" etc). According to slang expert Jonathon Green, "there aren’t 2000 new slang words a day – they don’t exist. It undermines the whole point of a dictionary".

As far as sex and gender are concerned, therefore, it would appear that words and concepts that originate in the internet’s most extreme anti-woman spaces are as significant – if not greater - an influence on Urban Dictionary as everyday language usage. Indeed, many words arguably make their way into everyday usage by virtue of appearing in Urban Dictionary, thus reversing the normal process of lexicographical innovation.

Finally, the proportion of definitions shaped by explicitly male perspectives calls into question common sense understandings of Urban Dictionary as a site of democratic and consensus-based linguistic innovation. Particularly in the case of words related to sex and gender, both the scale and the formulaic nature of the misogyny we identified indicate that a subset of Urban Dictionary’s users are mobilising the platform to weaponise sex against women.

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Due to its lack of curation, some of the internet’s most toxic misogyny has percolated through. In this sense, Urban Dictionary is functioning as a conduit between more extreme anti-feminist forums and mainstream culture. Considering that Googling a word often returns the Urban Dictionary definition in the first few hits, there is valid cause for concern about how these processes of lexicalisation might be influencing young men’s perceptions of women and women’s perceptions of themselves.

The full findings of this study have been published in New Media and Society 

Dr Debbie Ging is associate professor of Media Studies at Dublin City University. She is a former Irish Research Council awardee. Prof. Theodore Lynn is professor of Digital Business and director of the Irish Institute of Digital Business at Dublin City UniversityDr Pierangelo Rosati is an assistant professor in Business Analytics and Director of Industry Engagement at the Irish Institute of Digital Business at Dublin City University.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ