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At a WordPress conference this past weekend, I learned about an online service called Wordnik that brings social interaction to online dictionary use. In addition to a word of the day, a blog, and some community features, the site has a pretty snappy search engine and provides etymologies, synonyms, contexts, pronunciations, and the ability to save word lists (for example “words I’d like to use one day”). The site also aggregates tweets and Flickr images relevant to a given word, and you can comment on and tag words to add metadata of your own. I haven’t played with it much, but it looks kind of neat. If you’re a word nerd like me, maybe Wordnik will be up your alley; I’m still trying to figure out a good way to incorporate it seamlessly into my reading and writing on the web.

Poking around at the Wordnik site got me to thinking a bit about dictionaries, and I thought I’d share my dictionary tendencies and ask how you use dictionaries.

I became something of a dictionary enthusiast in college when I took a course on word origins. At the time, I used primarily an American Heritage Dictionary, though I occasionally dipped into others when I didn’t have my AHD handy. If I had a particularly interesting word I wanted to chase down, I would go to one of the libraries that housed a 20-plus volume of the Oxford English Dictionary, which is generally seen as the authority on English language lexicography. There also happens to be a fascinating book titled The Professor and the Madman that provides a glimpse into how the many citations the OED boasts were compiled, with special attention devoted to one especially colorful (and tragic) contributor.

Later in college, my parents were kind enough to give me a copy of the OED on CD-ROM. I’m old enough that the software itself actually came on and had to be run from a 3.5-inch diskette, with the CD holding the data. This put the whole of the OED at my fingertips and led me down all sorts of fun lexical paths (such as taking up a professor’s challenge to find the one-syllable word in English with the most letters).

A few years ago, I got my hands on a compact edition of the OED, two very large books that come together in a box with a drawer that holds a magnifying glass so that you can actually read the tiny print. I pull this out when I’m on a word hunt and am feeling like spending a little time with my nose in the book.

My local library system provides access to the OED online, though, and more and more, for quick lookups of words for which I want to find nuance of meaning or etymology, I’ll visit the OED online and search. The hard-copy bibliophile in me feels a little guilty about doing this.

There are of course many other kinds of dictionaries: reverse dictionaries that organize the words differently, rhyming dictionaries, dictionaries of word origins, translation dictionaries, and then fun things like Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary, which is actually a work of satire masquerading as a dictionary that includes entries like the following:

DICTIONARY, n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. This dictionary, however, is a most useful work.

My inner bibliophile had occasion to feel guilty again a year or so ago when I bought a Kindle, which comes with its own dictionary. I have a decent vocabulary and so can typically pick up from context more or less what a word means even if I don’t know its precise definition. When reading paper books, I all-too-often just gloss over words I’m less than familiar with, but with the Kindle, it’s easy to look up words quickly (in an ideal world, there’d maybe be a Wordnik plugin for the Kindle that would let me add a word to my list online), and so I find that while the Kindle in some ways makes me a lazier reader, it has helped me do a better job of looking up words I don’t know.

So, what dictionary do you use primarily? Do you know of any online resources that other readers of Daily Post might benefit from? Are you lazy about looking up words the way I am? If you’re a word nerd and have a favorite little-known word or word with a fun etymology, what is it?

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  1. Compelling post- especially the quote from Bierce’s Dictionary–a wonderfully irreverent book which the author used to “push buttons” much like Diderot had done a hundred years earlier.
    Sadly, authors like Bierce seem to fly below the radar these days.

    So..is there a preferred online Thesaurus?

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    1. The professor had come up with “broughammed” — as in “to be conveyed in a brougham, which was a type of horse-drawn carriage (the name was also later given to a line of Cadillacs).

      The word I proposed to unseat “broughammed” as the longest was “schoenanthed.” “Schoenanthe” is the name of a medicinal plant (lemon grass, I believe). It’s apparently a French name, but way back when, I found a reference to it in my OED (I no longer find it), so I figured it counted. To be schoenanthed would be to have the medicine administered to you. I don’t believe my professor ever commented on my submission. I’ll admit it’s a bit of a stretch and requires a pretty special pronunciation to comply with the one-syllable rule. 😉

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  2. As a former English major and teacher, I am a dictionary snob. The only way to go for me is the OED. I can’t stand it when dictionaries define a word with the word or a form of the word. My thought process is, if I knew the meaning of the word, I wouldn’t be looking it up in the first place. Therefore you are not helping me when you define the word with a form of the word I’m looking up. That just tells me the folks “defining” the word(s) don’t know what it means themselves. WOW!!

    Sorry for the rant.

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  3. I am a word nut too. When I got into lexicography at college I started collecting dictionaries. Something that has cost me a lot of money over the years. I now have nearly a hundred dictionaries. All are books. Some are pretty specialist and some like my Shorter OED are invaluable even though they are nearly 30 years old now. I usually end up with the OED when doing word research. But I must say some of the American dictionaries are more and more important these days because of the Americanisation of the global language. So you have to be careful not to be too priggish about the research you do. However, the OED is unbeatable as a source of etymological information.

    I must try the Devils Dictionary… sounds fun!

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  4. Word nik seems just fabulous. Words really are my thing and after looking up a particularly uncouth Scottish word (which my mother would never let us say,) I really fell in love with this word machine/facility/dictionary/online word explainer. Thanks very much. I probably won’t read it in bed because I would’t be able to get up for work the next day.

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  5. I usually use Merriam Webster which also includes a word of the day, vocabulary games, a thesaurus, and Brittanica definitions, among other things. I also sometimes use the OED on my Kindle. It will be interesting to try Wordnik!

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  6. Reblogged this on Az. Chic Boutique and commented:
    Here are my thoughts for the day, I am thinking you all might like this article so I am sharing it with you.

    Enjoy your weekend and I will chat with you next Tuesday,.

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  7. As a learner of English, Longman Dictionary of English Language and Culture is particularly useful, as it explains words, concept, and sometimes with funny illustrations.

    For example, it explains a culture-specific concept of ‘train spotter’, unknown to most foreigners: ‘BrE, a person who collects the numbers of railway engines and information about them as a hobby. People often make jokes about train spotters because they are considered to be boring people who are only interested in small details and boring facts and always wear ANORAKS.’ Next to it, there is an image of a comical train spotter.

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  8. An online dictionary called Linguee (no accent) is a French site that’s useful for English speakers. If you come across a French word in your reading, type it into the search box and you’ll be offered a large number of French sentences that include your word and translated equivalents of the sentences, in which the English word will be highlighted. For example, type in ‘amour’, and you will see French sentences in the left-hand column with matching ones in the right-hand column with ‘love’ highlighted. It also works the other way: type in an English word and it will give you the French equivalent used in a number of sentences.

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  9. Thanks for the heads up on Worknik. It is a site, I’ll no doubt bookmark, and probably use often. As far as dictionaries go, I have a standard “Webster’s Dictionary and Thesaurus” I basically use for spelling. Spell check has me so spoiled, now if it is not available, I have to verify my words to make sure I’m not making myself look like a total fool when making remarks. Typos are enough of an enemy, as it is. 🙂 Word Power is another cool book. I nose through that one sometimes, just for the heck of it. I find, I learn alot that way.

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  10. I love Bierce’s Devil Dictionary – eloquently snarky. When I read well-written British detective novels (PD James, for example) I like to have an OED nearby, because the Brits speak funny, you know. I get a daily email from A.Word.A.Day, http://www.wordsmith.org/awad Oh, & I enjoy the urbandictionary.com — my favorite word: Defecately http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=defecately

    BTW, if your Kindle is encouraging you to look up more words, why do you say it’s making you a lazy reader? (just curious)

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  11. I have a dictionary of phrase and fable, a dictionary of musical terms, a dictionary of slang, a dictionary of farm terms (just kidding), but my reliable go to dictionary is the American Heritage. Not only does it have American English uses and non-uses, but an complete etymology down to Indo-European roots – which is where I found the origin of “fear” which was to walk all around something (i.e. circumnavagate)….hmmmmmmm.

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  12. Thanks for sharing Wordnik. There was a time I’d pick up the OED when I ran out out of reading material and always found it engrossing. All the same I’m lazy too about looking up words while reading so having OED on my Kindle is great. Have used Roget’s Thesaurus in the past and also Fowler’s for usage.

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  13. I use Dictionary.com when I’m at my computer (which is almost always), and “The Oxford American Dictionary and Language Guide” when I’m offline. I truly love both. For something fun, go to Dictionary.com and complete the WordDynamo challenge. It may surprise you to find out how many words you know (or don’t know). Also, I recommend Visual Thesaurus, an interactive thesaurus on steroids at VisualThesaurus.com.

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  14. I’m a Webster’s girl. Two treasured volumns sit on my bookshelf, one published 1988 and the other in 1940, both found in used book stores. The 1940 edition has travelled, first from “Nellie to George Christmas 1941”, and later “Ron” got his hands on it and spent a fair amount of time inking “Ron & Edith” on the tab end, but he also had a lesser crush on “Lynn” for a while, the ink is nearly faded. I am lazy about looking up words, but when I want something unusual I turn to my 1940 and 1988 Websters. With the help of these cherished dictionaries I once had a small home business, “WEORPAN DESIGNS”. Great article … I’m going to reblog it for the benefit of all my poet, writer and word nerd pals. Thanks.

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      1. weorpan – to throw, cast, toss, to cast out, drive away [A Thesaurus of Old English – Jane Roberts, Christian Kay, Lynne Grundy]

        Google Books has a preview version of this Thesaurus. Also, Google “weorpan”. There is a lot of information out there on this word.

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  15. Reblogged this on Cheryl Andrews and commented:
    Hey all my poet, writer and word nerd pals, check out Wordnik, The Professor and the Madman and the Devil’s Dictionary. Daryl L.L. Houston has done it again – another informative AND entertaining post!

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  16. A great post with some great informative comments. I actually like to read it…so much information there! I thought I’d share that sometimes I play a “game” with my dictionary: I just open it randomly to see what word I find. One of the best poems I have ever written came from this game. The word was “stalking horse”.

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  17. I am quite a bit of a word nerd .. I have this routine of learning a word everyday (and some interesting phrases too) and I try to use them (try as much as possible not to sound weird 🙂 ).. I used Oxford Dictionary at first . Then , I started using Webster’s as my dad give it to me as a gift. Nowadays , I use WordWeb software. It is quite convenient . Above all , I ‘google’ words a lot ..

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  18. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition, 1991, is in one volume. The print is smaller than it was in the old two-volume set of the first edition (9 original pages per compact page), which I could read with the naked eye, so for this one the magnifying glass is indispensable. On the other hand it’s been updated and the pronunciation is given in IPA characters. I couldn’t do without it.

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  19. My ex-husband, bless him, gave me the Shorter Oxford (The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1993) – the best gift anybody’s ever given me. It has a shelf of its own in the bookcase, with space for one of its volumes to be opened in situ – because, like sued51, I love just opening it and seeing which word leaps off the page to me. I appreciate that I can actually see (most of) the words without having to struggle with a magnifying glass, and when I’m working, I simply plonk the two volumes on my desk, right there, within arms reach. And that’s the rub – what to do when we don’t have our number one book (yes, it is mine, my favourite book) within reach? (Sheepishly …) I get slack. Mostly I can figure out the meaning, and if I can’t, and it’s absolutely necessary to complete understanding, and/or enjoyment, then I have to traipse upstairs to visit my friend. Wordnik sounds fun, but how on earth will I find the time to add another diversion to my days?
    Nice to meet you all …

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  20. Interesting post, I’m so looking forward to checking out Wordnik. I suppose that makes me a bit of a word nerd! I tend to use The New Oxford American Dictionary on my computer nowadays. I do enjoy looking at etymologies and one of my favorite discoveries was that of the word “organize.” ORIGIN late Middle English: from medieval Latin “organizare,” from Latin “organum” ‘instrument,tool.’ Thanks again for the post.

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