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NINTH CIRCUIT JUDGES WRANGLE OVER WHAT’S IN A WORD If someone called you a pimp, would you feel insulted — or kinda cool? Your answer may depend on your age, your hipness quotient, and how literally you take the English language. When his colleagues on a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled last week that “pimp” isn’t necessarily derogatory, Judge Carlos Bea sternly called them out in a dissenting opinion. Webster’s defines a pimp as “a man who solicits customers for a prostitute or a brothel” and “a despicable person.” But Bea’s fellow judges on the panel updated the term, noting that many young people consider the word a slang compliment. The linguistic tussle began after ESPN’s “extreme sports” Web site, EXPN.com, published a photo of famed motorcycle stuntman Evel Knievel at an awards show. Knievel was pictured with one arm around his wife Krystal and the other around an unidentified young woman. The photo caption read, “Evel Knievel proves that you’re never too old to be a pimp.” Knievel, 66, was unamused. A Montana resident who is active in anti-drug and youth programs, he sued for defamation, and the case wound up in the Ninth Circuit’s lap. Judges A. Wallace Tashima and Richard Paez decided that although “pimp” is pejorative if you’re talking about someone who slaps around prostitutes, the Web site’s usage was probably a compliment and intended to connote that Knievel is cool and a “master of a particular subject matter.” Tashima and Paez had fun in their opinion discussing whether “pimp” would have a criminal implication to ESPN Web viewers and how the word should be construed in the context of the site’s other slang words and phrases. Those included “rollin’ deep” (which the judges helpfully defined as “driving along in a cool car”), “kick it” (a phrase rappers use to connote giving something away, according to the judges), and “hardcore” (a slang word for “anything that is cool or liable to hurt you.”) As used on the ESPN site, the majority wrote, the term “pimp” “was not intended as a criminal accusation, nor was it reasonably susceptible to such a literal interpretation. Ironically, it was most likely intended as a compliment.” They added that other slang words on EXPN.com, such as “hottie,” can’t be interpreted literally and that the overall tone of the Web pages was “lighthearted, jocular, and intended for a youthful audience.” The judges also noted that the site poked cheeky fun at sports figures other than Knievel. For example, a caption accompanying a photo of snowboarders Shannon Dunn and Leslee Olson claimed that they “make it look easy to be cheesy.” But Bea took a much more serious approach, accusing his colleagues of ignoring possible damage to Knievel’s reputation and quoting Iago from Shakespeare’s “Othello”: But he that filches from me my good name Robs me of that which not enriches him, And makes me poor indeed. Bea argued that standard dictionary definitions of words carry far more weight than slang meanings. “[T]here is nothing ‘loose, figurative or hyperbolic’ about the term ‘pimp,’” he wrote. “The noun describes criminal activity � and should be especially loathsome to the ‘hip’ who sometimes espouse political correctness, for it connotes despicable sexist � exploitation.” The judge noted that EXPN.com was not an “overtly nonfactual, satirical publication” and that it “was not inherently unbelievable that a daredevil [could] attract, and perhaps exploit, women.” The site also bore no disclaimer that the material presented was satirical. Although other sports celebs were described on EXPN.com “in terms of fun-filled misconduct of one sort or another, only Knievel was described as a criminal [emphasis in original], per dictionary definition,” the judge wrote. Bea concluded that a reasonable person could interpret the “pimp” caption as defamatory, and that a jury should decide the issue. — Jeff Chorney

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