What’s a Good Online Dictionary?

On: September 19, 2010
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About Ashiq Khondker
M.A - New Media, Universiteit van Amsterdam; B.S - Liberal Arts, The New School, NY. I forrestgump about the creative world, like where's waldo in the art fair circuit. I should write more, but I'm absorbing it all until my closet artist's got enough ammo.


Every good scholar and samaritan comes across a new word throughout their life, so we’ve relied on dictionaries to aid us. Our lexical resources have evolved with our languages, and even in my life I’ve come to rely on the internet more often than the good old fat little paper dictionaries with their years-old dictionary smells you could flip through.

Today, despite all the choices available online, we each have our favorite go-to dictionary.. you know, the first place you look to understand an alien word.

Currently my go-to is the “define:” function on google search*. It gives you a list of definitions from various online dictionaries, such as dictionary.com, wiktionary, wikipedia, and Princeton University’s brilliant WordNet.

(*There’s a difference between typing “define <search term>” and “define: <search term>”.. the link above brings you to what Google is currently touting on their help page, but the old format with the “:” still works, and gives you more streamlined results.)

If I need a deeper understanding of the word in question, such as a further etymology, I look at the Oxford English Dictionary online, usually through a university’s Digital Library. (Sorry rest-of-the-world, unless you have access to an academic library or OED subscription you’re shut out!)

For fellow UvA students, in order to access this you first need to download and install the Cisco VPN client (instructions and download here), then go to the Digital Library and search for Oxford English Dictionary in the Database search. Use this resource while you can!

I love this dictionary because you can find words by scrolling through its comprehensive list as a virtual substitute for flipping through (a real dictionary’s) pages. You can enable or disable further information by clicking on tabs for Pronunciation, Etymology, Quotations, and a Date Chart which shows when the word first made appearances  and developed throughout history.

That makes my word search more meaningful, because the more information you have about something, the easier it is to remember it.

Of course if you still can’t find the definition you seek, if it’s so colloquial or so new that the established dictionaries don’t include it yet, you should always check the Urban Dictionary.

(As my samples, I searched for the terms “ontology” and “stanky ho” in the search engines mentioned above. Both OED and Google “define:” function returned coinciding results for “ontology,” and nothing for “stanky” or “stanky ho”. Urban Dictionary filled in the gaps by returning just the opposite results.)

As the title is posted as a question, please feel free to reply with your answers below.

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