Urban Dictionary Is Ruining the English Language

The current generation of phonetic spellers is robbing the future of the past.

We were sitting around at my in-laws’ house last night, celebrating my mother-in-law’s birthday (I’ll refrain from giving a number) by watching the Giants clobber the Packers, when an argument broke out.

“He was totally gypped on that catch!” my son Jake declared of a player he thought had suffered pass interference.

“It’s not politically correct to say ‘gypped,’” I noted mildly.

My daughter Marcy, who was desperate for anything besides football to entertain her, looked up. “Why not?”

“It’s insulting to—” I began, but Jake jumped in:

“It’s insulting to the Japanese,” he told her.

“It is not,” I said. “It’s insulting to Gypsies.”

He laughed at me. “The Gypsies? Where did you get that?”

“Where did you get the Japanese?”

“Look how it’s spelled: J-I-P,” he retorted.

I shook my head. “No it’s not. It’s G-Y-P. Like Gypsy. Because they had a reputation as cheaters.”

Jake whipped out his smartphone, the ultimate authority to whom all must now defer. “How much do you want to bet?”

“I don’t have to bet. I know what I’m talking about.” He began to punch keys. “And don’t tell me what Urban Dictionary says! Urban Dictionary is not a real research tool!”

“Did you ever look up your name on Urban Dictionary?” Marcy asked excitedly. “You should see what it says about Marcella. It says Marcellas are beautiful and sexy.”

It has never once occurred to me to look up my name on Urban Dictionary. I like Urban Dictionary; it can be funny as hell. But here’s what Urban Dictionary says under “jip”: “To take unfairly.” “A letdown. Or in some cases a rip-off.” Which is pretty much the same thing it says for “gyp.” No coy note attached to the former spelling that it’s considered any less authentic or proper than the latter one. In the brave new world of texting, if it sounds like the word you want, it is the word you want. Talk about Hooked on Phonics. This generation really is.

Consider the conversation I had with a young colleague at work last week. He’d written this headline on a blog post: “Santorum Now Hocking Sweater Vests.” I shot him an email: “I think you mean ‘hawking’? From, like, the way vendors used to cry out their wares at street fairs, and sound like hawks?”

“No, I mean ‘hocking,’” he shot back. “I looked it up. ‘Hock’ like ‘pawn.’”

“But Santorum isn’t pawning sweater vests. He’s selling them.”

“Nobody pawns anything anymore and expects to ever buy it back,” my colleague informed me. “So ‘pawn’ and ‘hock’ mean the same thing as ‘sell.’”

Well, no. They don’t. Or, rather, you can say they do, but when you do, when you erase the distinction, you make the English language less rich. If Santorum is “hawking” sweater vests, he’s tapping into all the nuances that go along with crying one’s wares in the marketplace, the insinuations of tawdriness and cheapness. Whereas if he’s “hocking” them—I don’t know what the hell he’s doing with them. Surrendering them as collateral on a loan?

“What’s Urban Dictionary?” my mother-in-law asked.

I took a breath. She’s a really neat lady; she has a doctorate in library sciences. For decades, she was a school librarian, helping students navigate the Dewey Decimal System so they could write book reports on the world’s longest rivers and illuminated manuscripts. She does a damned fine job of navigating her Mac laptop for a woman who was born in … well, no need to be specific. The point is, I didn’t really want to tell her that her grandkids rely for research on a website that decides the meaning of words by the same system Siskel and Ebert once used to rate movies: thumbs up or thumbs down.

If Gypsies are the same as Jipsies, then … what are Jipsies? What’s going to become of those long, thorny, fascinating etymologies in the dictionary? How will scholars explain how phonetics can wrench a word free of its Biblically listed begetters—“hawk, noun [ME houk, fr, OE hafoc; akin to OHG habuh hawk, Russ kobets a falcon] (bef. 12c)”—and toss it negligently onto another dunghill altogether (“hock, noun [D hok pen, prison] (1883)”?

On the other hand, haven’t words always only meant what we generally agree they mean? Thumbs up, thumbs down?

Yes, but. What about those Gypsies? “By shortening & alter. fr. Egyptian,” Merriam Webster says. What a wealth of otherness and mystery that heritage carries with it! But Generation Phonics considers that useless baggage. Who cares where a word comes from? Brevity, Shakespeare said, is the soul of wit. Nowadays, it’s the soul of meaning itself; the fewer keystrokes I need to communicate my message, the sooner I can get back to Facebook! LMFAO!

U R heading down a slippery slope, Generation Phonics. Meantime, happy birthday, Myrna. Or as Urban Dictionary puts it, “That woman is amazing, she must be a Myrna.” Thumbs up, all the way.