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You’re probably using the wrong dictionary (2014) (jsomers.net)
291 points by MaysonL on Apr 27, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 87 comments

Thankfully Wiktionary imported wholesale the old Webster's dictionary (due partly to it being in the public domain). It has the same multitude of meanings and examples, including those from the article. On top, of course, it's updated for very modern language and with quotations from literature and journalism closer to us in time.

Which is why I have three different methods for quick lookup in Wiktionary in the desktop browser, and whipped up an extension for FF mobile to look up the selection with one tap.

Wiktionary's definition of ‘pathos’ omits the first variant from Webster's, however I'd say I've never seen it used in that meaning and it sounds more like the original Greek sense. (Though the relation to ‘ethos’ should probably be mentioned.)

Alas, for my love to Wiktionary, I'm having trouble learning less-familiar words with it, because I'm hoping to use Anki for that purpose. Turns out, a scroll of different meanings is no good as an answer on a flash card since I'm yet to learn just the most prominent one. All points to me importing a simpler dictionary like the Oxford, and manually fiddling with subtler meanings where I need them.

I'm yet to find a thesaurus which would be as comprehensive and usable, with notes on the differences in meanings. For now, I'm employing thesaurus.com plus Wiktionary lookups—the thesaurus somehow just has more stuff and shades of meanings than other online ones, including established names like Merriam-Webster.

Wiktionary is great! I'm interested in etymology, and my mind frequently wanders to thoughts like "I wonder what the origin of the 'pseudo-' prefix is." or "I wonder if the english word 'sea' and the swedish word 'sjö' are related - they seem quite similar.". More often than not, wikitionary has the answer - and a good, detailed one at that!

In case Wiktionary fails, you can try https://www.etymonline.com ― it's especially has more info on figurative phrases instead of individual words, and has dates when a word or a phrase entered the usage (according to records).

That looks like a nice second source. I miss the IPA pronununciations though, among other things, so wikitionary will remain my go-to.

I looked for a way to install Wiktionary within the Dictionary app, similar to installing Webster’s Dictionary as described in this post. I found an Apple Stack Exchange question “How to add wiktionary as a source to the default dictionary.app?” at https://apple.stackexchange.com/q/122494/21473, but some comments say that the suggested program conversion DictUnifier runs forever without finishing, so there may not be an easy method currently. I did find another program PyGlossary that might serve as a substitute, but I haven’t tried it.

Software errors tend to come and go for different users, so you could try DictUnifier anyway. I've successfully used it previously, though with a different dictionary.

Back in 2014, this article inspired me to write an iOS app.

I took a few weekends putting most of my efforts into formatting and readability. Just when I was ready to release, I got really busy at work.

Weeks became months, and months became years. By the time I got back to it last year, Xcode wouldn't compile it anymore.

To my dismay, I also discovered that a number of other apps had been launched. After fretting a bit, I realized that most of the competition had done a poor job parsing the raw data and formatting the text.

So I released it anyway. Feel free to give it a try and let me know what you think: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/id1397172520

This seems to be a real labor of love for you.

It must be slightly traumatic seeing your first review of the app:

> 1/5 stars: Missing many basic words. Seems like a phishing app

I don't think your target audience is those looking for dictionaries. LoL

Haha, I try to stay above things :-)

Thanks for putting this together. Downloaded and like it quite a bit so far! Will rate 5 on the app store too.

Thank you neosat! Much appreciated.

One of my favourite possessions is The Compact Edition Of The Oxford English Dictionary, which is the complete text of the multi-volume OED shrunk down into two volumes totalling about 4000 pages (it comes in a case with a drawer for a magnifying glass). I got it for next to nothing on eBay a few years ago. I don’t use it every day but it’s wonderful for browsing and inspiration in the way this article describes.


This is the single-volume second edition. Mine is the two-volume first edition.

Fwiw, I've taken to always using the Collins dictionary, it explains words in a way that's meaningful and not entirely dry to me.

I think it has some of these 1911 Webster qualities.

Collins on flash: https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/flash

Vocabulary.com is nice too. https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/flash

I like the colored parts of speech

Oh wow. I just discovered this dictionary recently myself, via the GNU Collaborative International Dictionary of English [0].

It turns out that this is the primary default for the cli dictionary tool `dict` [1], which has happily become my go-to.

[0]:http://gcide.gnu.org.ua/ [1]:http://sourceforge.net/projects/dict/

The Dictionary [1] program included with MATE also defaults to giving definitions from Webster's 1913.

This is because it is using dict.org [2], which serves _The Collaborative International Dictionary of English_ v.0.48 (GCIDE) as it's default dictionary [3].

[1] https://github.com/mate-desktop/mate-utils/tree/master/mate-...

[2] http://www.dict.org/bin/Dict

[3] http://www.dict.org/bin/Dict?Form=Dict3&Database=gcide

edit: Newline formatting.

Dictionaries are also useful for problem-solving. I tab-complete "dicto" in my editor and ten random dictionary words appear. I look for intuitive-metaphorical connections to the current problem. This has been very useful on coaching calls. "What if we look at this as a [carousel] amusement project. Where is the fun in it for you?"

One client reminds me every month that one of those random words solved his problem, so it's paid for itself! :-)

Very similar to the Oblique Strategies method, though with different means: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oblique_Strategies

The dictionary linked in this post has some formatting issues, so a kind soul improved upon it (Mac Dictionary.app dictionary):


Thanks for the link. After trying both this version and https://github.com/aparks517/convert-websters linked elsewhere in this thread, I think I prefer this version of Webster’s Dictionary. But I don’t think either version is good enough to replace macOS’s default New Oxford American Dictionary. See my comment under the discussion of convert-websters for details: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19763435#19784835

And the installation instructions on the GitHub page are much simpler than the complicated thing that TFA suggests

Previous discussion from 5 years ago with 138 comments: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7772557

I like to make my own dictionaries for texts I'm studying. I sort all the words, uniq them, and create a word list containing every word in the text I'm studying.

Then, I pipe each word entry through sdcv, with my favourite dictionaries enabled, and create a glossary specifically for the text in study.

Then as I study the text, and encounter strange and unfamiliar words, I use my glossary to gain understanding. If something doesn't quite seem right, I consult other dictionary entries for the word in question - this is often because its a technical phrase or term.

This has helped me immensely to understand texts before I even start reading them.

Wow. This is super interesting. TFA and hearing methods like these and how people who write and read a lot work with language is mind-opening to me. I have recently fallen into the habit of browsing YouTube all day long and listening to some podcasts or documentaries while playing video games. I'm now reminded how much more writing and reading evokes thoughts than just blasting something from TV or a streaming service.

Reading is not just background noise. It demands your attention, or you will fall out of the text quickly.

This is a truly delightful dictionary!

I put together a tool to improve the formatting somewhat the last time this went around: https://github.com/aparks517/convert-websters

And also an iOS app: https://itunes.apple.com/app/id943993346

I’ve also been collecting patches to correct typographical errors which I’ve been meaning to post somewhere. I’ve met lots of neat folks through this project!

I tried installing both your convert-websters and https://github.com/mortenjust/webster-mac linked elsewhere in this thread, and I think I prefer the other one, webster-mac. It is almost the same as yours, but its font size is more similar to the font size of the built-in dictionary, and it displays words as lower-case (though they are still listed in upper-case). Even though the webster-mac version improperly renders proper nouns as lower-case, I think that is a better tradeoff given that I know that I shouldn’t depend on the dictionary for capitalization, as lower-case letters make terms easier to read.

However, I don’t think I’ll be setting webster-mac as my default dictionary. macOS’s built-in New Oxford American Dictionary may have less colorful descriptions of the words, but it has features that greatly enhance readability that neither version of Webster’s has:

• Quotes are visually distinguished from definitions.

• The font size is consistent with other dictionaries.

• It describes pronunciation for each word (supporting two formats: diacritical or IPA).

• The correct capitalization of every word is demonstrated, both in the entry and in the index.

• It uses proper typography, avoiding fake dashes “--”.

The app isn’t currently available in the UK, any way you can change that?

Works in India too, thanks!

The app is unavailable in the Indian App store.

Back when I was writing my PhD thesis (in English, as a non-native English speaker) I remember looking for a more efficient way to find synonyms for certain word.

Usually when you are looking for synonyms, you know you already know the word but you just cannot find it. So the Idea I had was to make some kind of "graph" representation of Word relationships given their meaning.

I remember finding a huge list of words with scores related to their meaning like:

Fly 1, Soar 0.9, Float 0.8.

Think, Ponder 0.9, Muse 0.8.

Which really helped, however given the different "directions" of the meaning that a word can have, this is better represented as a graph.

I finished my PhD writing with the use of said list (saddly I could never find it again), and the graph meaning idea just "went away" (lacking a better word) as I finished my degree. But the need for an efficient and quickly way to find that replacement word is still active.

Thesaurus.com is similar—it has closer synonyms scored higher. But also separates different meanings of a word.

I think that it either has automated the process of finding synonyms, or started with a corpus like the one you're talking about.

I wish there was a quality open thesaurus, because Thesaurus.com's interface is annoying sometimes, and I could use some integration with a dictionary. Wiktionary's efforts aren't quite there yet.

Sounds a bit like what the Wordflex app does: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/wordflex-touch-dictionary/id...

If you're interested in the same sort of beautiful, interesting dictionary for French, there's the classic Littré. It's not that the definitions themselves are colourful, but the quotes used as examples always are.


Other good choices for French are the Trésor de la Langue Française informatisé (1994) developed by CNRS, and the various editions of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie Française.

They can be accessed here (along with a few more dictionaries) http://www.cnrtl.fr/definition/

There is also a decent iPhone/Android app to search the TLFi (not free, requires internet access) https://dictionnaire.app/

I cant believe no one has mentioned the great secret of writers: Brewer's dictionary of Phrase and Fable. This is the dictionary you read for fun, the one which sends you on rabbit holes of cross referencing, the one that gives you new ideas, stories, characters. You are missing out as a writer without it.

Came here to add a comment about this as well. Got pointed in its direction by a Terry Pratchett essay, fantastically interesting. He said something along the lines of "it's not the dictionary you pull out to find a specific fact, but the one you pull out to learn something you didn't realize you were interested in," IIRC.

I also will add that a good dictionary of quotations is also a good writing/thinking aid.

While an interesting perspective, I do have to question whether this is simply a matter of the author preferring Webster's prescriptive nuances over more descriptive approaches, even when those nuances do not appear supported by use.

Taking the example they use, fustian, the OED does not include the idea that it refers specifically to a mismatch between topic and style, and gives numerous examples, from Marlowe onward, of its use without that aspect.

Is there any reason to attempt to capture, as you're seemingly describing, the intersection of the usages of a word; the "beige" of definitions? Would it not make more sense to instead describe all the various shades of usage that the word has had emplaced within it by various writers' hands—at least those put forth with enough force for those shades to be recognized and understood by readers today—even if those usages are peculiar and non-standard?

Analogously: if there were to be a book of acrylic paint swatches that described, for each pigment swatch, what things that color resembles, I wouldn't care much for descriptions that held themselves to the standard of applicability in all possible lighting conditions. There are very few pigments that look the same no matter the lighting (maybe some really vivid reds, and Vantablack.) Rather, I would want separate descriptions of what the color would seem to best resemble under various potential lighting conditions, even if those conditions are rare or even unnatural. As the artist doing the painting, I'm not necessarily constrained by a particular lighting condition; I can change the lighting to suit the pigment just as well as I can choose the pigment to suit the lighting (those being two different artistic projects; sometimes you really are painting the Cistene chapel and can't choose how it's lit, but that doesn't mean you can't find inspiration for a different project in the middle of doing so.)

As the writer, if I find an inspiring, yet effectively-unknown definition of a word—well, that's a good opportunity to put that definition to work in my writing in a way that leads people to expand their conception of the word to include my new pet definition.

Don't most dictionaries do this to an extent? A description, a pronunciation guide then an example or two?

In the world of digital books though, you would be able to freatpy expand upon those examples(and even including blurbs about the usage of said word).

If you're looking for inspiration, I don't think that what you're looking for is what we call a dictionary. Unless you're using the word "dictionary" in a poetic sense, or generally the senses of words inspire you.

From my experience with Wiktionary which uses Webster's as the basis, it's exactly descriptive and has the different meanings that are in use. If OED has one meaning, it doesn't mean that people don't use other ones.

It happens that Wiktionary doesn't have one of meanings, but very rare.

Wow this is wonderful, thank you. I am wondering if something similar exists for German.

Potentially the Deutsches Wörterbuch started by the Brothers Grimm: http://woerterbuchnetz.de/DWB

  SPORT, m. leibesübung als spiel und zum vergnügen; ein englisches wort,
  das die vergnügungen des feldes, der jagd, wettrennen, schwimmen und sonst 
  allerlei kurzweil nach festen regeln ausgeführt, bedeutet, im mittelenglischen 
  disport, mit dem verbum disporten sich vergnügen, lautet und auf altfranz. 
  desport, ital. diporto belustigung, freude, vergnügen, zurückgeht. die sache
  selbst erscheint in nachahmung englischen brauchs mit dem namen vereinzelt 
  bereits in den 50 er jahren des 19. jahrh. (vgl. unten sportneuigkeit von 1855),
  hat aber erst in den letzten jahrzehnten des 19. jahrh. so um sich gegriffen,
  dasz das wort völlig in die deutsche sprache eingebürgert ist: sport treiben; 
  jagd-, reit-, renn-, schwimmsport; rittersport Freytag bilder 2, 1, 4; 
  dem sport huldigen, den sport pflegen.
There it is, "vergnügungen des feldes", roughly "diversion of the field" :)

That’s a great find. I’m just wondering, why are all nouns lowercased in this dictionary’s definitions?

> leibesübung als spiel und zum vergnügen; ein englisches wort

The project slightly predates a standardized German orthography and the original manuscript used its own capitalization conventions: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/84/Grimm_W%...

For french the best equivalent that I know of would be the littré[0] but I would also be interested in alternatives.


I could use one for Spanish.

I remember taking numerous vocabulary tests and quizzes in grade school where the definitions given were of the ‘modern’ type in this article. I wonder if the change in the dictionary was driven by a test based approach to learning the language?

It’s a nice, quantifiable thing to ask a student to define fustian prose as pompous. It’s a lot harder to get the student to explain that fustian is when one tries to punch above the weight class of the idea they’re conveying via flowery prose.

I remember vocab lessons in school. Near as I can tell from what my sister, who is raising a school-age son, tells me, they don't teach that anymore. The TDD (Test-Driven Didactics) implemented by No Child Left Behind leaves no room for vocabulary lessons in the curriculum; instead, pupils are expected to infer the meaning of unknown words from context. Even the Scientologists have it better: LRH's study tech at least asks you to look up the word on your own.

Anyway, the vocabulary lessons I had came from textbooks, some of which wrote entire short essays on each word, The one for "brogue" (meaning an Irish accent), for instance, goes into its etymology and notes a comparison with a kimd of shoe of the same name. The shoe, it turns out, has a different etymology and the two twrms are not related. The essay concludes: "The idea that the Irish accent fits the tongue as comfortably as a friendly old shoe fits the foot is probably pure Irish fantasy."

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy the novel The Great Passage by Shion Miura, a wonderful quiet novel about the creation of a Japanese dictionary.

I’ve watched this series and can recommend it for anyone interested in the subject.

A good dictionary and thesaurus are really useful. But you also want to surround yourself with reference books that reward idle noodling. Here are two of my favorites.

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. You can pick up old editions dirt cheap on the usual sites. Here's the wikipedia entry. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brewer%27s_Dictionary_of_Phras...

A Dictionary of metaphor. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Metaphors-Dictionary-Comparative-in...

If you like Webster's, Garner's Modern American Usage will blow your head off.

The latest edition covers non-American English too, so it's now "Garner's Modern English Usage". I first learned of this book from David Foster Wallace's review of the first edition in Harper's Magazine:


I agree it is excellent, and Wallace's review is also worth reading.

Wallace mentions American Heritage, as strictest of the prescriptivists. Highly usable online version:


I believe the definitions you get by googling "define $WORD" are especially horrible. In fact I have a whole diatribe about this...


As a teaser, here are some of the google definitions I've come across that I believe are all wrong:

  come out in the wash

The power of LookUp is immense for writing well. But Grammarly often beats it. Those who write a lot, know that the dictionary is a second most valuable tool in writing after the chair.

"Merriam-Webster's New Dictionary of Synonyms" is devoted to explaining shades of meaning among synonyms. For example, it explains why you might choose to use defer, postpone, intermit, suspend, or stay. Interesting if you're a writer, or if you're generally interested in suggestion, implication, and denotation. It's very browsable.

Is there an Android App with etymology? I have seen few websites, is there a "recommend" website for this dictionary?

Wiktionary has good etymologies for many words, including separate definition-etymology sections for these words in other languages (them still being explained in English), thus sometimes letting you explore much of the relation tree. As a bonus, its English definitions are imported from the old Webster's plus it's updated for very modern language. So you could look for apps packaging Wiktionary, or it might be available as a package for a universal dictionary app.

Another good source for etymologies is the Etymonline site―in particular it's better for figuring out when some figurative meanings and sayings entered the popular usage. Might also be available as an app.

> Recall that the New Oxford, for the word “fustian,” gives “pompous or pretentious speech or writing.” I said earlier that that wasn’t even really correct. Here, then, is Webster’s definition: “An inflated style of writing; a kind of writing in which high-sounding words are used, above the dignity of the thoughts or subject; bombast.” Do you see the difference? What makes fustian fustian is not just that the language is pompous — it’s that this pomposity is above the dignity of the thoughts or subject. It’s using fancy language where fancy language isn’t called for.

That last bit is an excellent definition of fustian, and reveals Webster's definition to be (IMHO) a bit, well, fustian.

>using fancy language where fancy language isn’t called for

That's not what "pompous" means but it is exactly what "pretentious" means. For some reason OP ignored that part of the definition.

“fustian” and “pretentious speech” and “pompous speech” can be similar/related but they don’t map 1:1 to each-other.

Fustian is a type of cloth which was used as padding. If I say I just listened to 10 minutes of fustian from a politician that means they were filling time far beyond the direct content. I would characterize many business books as fustian. (Or at least, this has always been my understanding of the word.)

If I say the speech was pretentious that means it was artificially pretending to be something it wasn’t, e.g. as if it were written by someone who looked up every word they wanted to use in the thesaurus and then chose the most obscure quasi-synonym without knowing its meaning and without bothering to check that the new word actually meant what they wanted to say. (There might be other types of pretension. For instance, someone might say that a highly-educated upper-class politician’s speech is pretentious when he talks like a manual laborer, or that a political scientist’s writing is pretentious when it reads like a physics paper.)

If I say the speech was pompous, that means it was affectedly grand; imagine someone giving a speech at a city council meeting about whether to add some bike lanes to a local street but sounding like a king’s eulogy.

“Fluff”, “stuffing”, “padding”, “bombast”, “hot air”, etc. are ways of expressing more or less the same metaphor as “fustian”.

I'll also mention the urban dictionary when looking up recently made up words.

Also, learning different languages usually reveals that you cannot think in the same way when using different languages. So you may end up creating new words to describe ideas the other language doesn't convey.

Anyway, languages keep evolving all the time ;)

You can also find it here:


You can see why it became cliché to start a speech with “Webster’s defines X as…”: with his dictionary the definition that followed was actually likely to lend gravitas to your remarks, to sound so good, in fact, that it’d beat anything you could come up with on your own.

Not just cliché but entirely juvenile and formulaic. Public speaking teachers mislead their students by teaching them this bore of an opening.

Did anyone else find the writing in this post almost unbearable? It's deliberately showy in a way while also seeming self-conscious about being perceived as pretentious. The predictable dig at modernist architecture is exactly what I expect from this kind of prescriptive aesthetic paternalism.

It is poorly written. Some writers confuse mental diarrhea with good writing. His style is overly wordy and needlessly punctuated.

He takes too long to push the informative points, all the while cloaking them in too much empty dross.

At first, I thought this was an example of something written by an AI program. It is lumpy and disjointed to the mind in the same way that the Uncanny Valley is disorienting to the eye.

I'm going to settle on it simply being a poorly written meandering of thought disguised as something that it isn't.

The information that writing can convey is not limited to an equation where the words used exist on one side and the meaning of the sentence on the other.

I hate to explain something someone else wrote, but the messy, tangential writing is mirroring the uncertainty that the author calls out in the dictionary definitions that they love. Their intent is to convey the joy that these words have for them when seen through the lens of Webster’s 1913. Joy is not constrained to declarative statements marching in lock step to the beat of logical coherence. To remove the “over wordiness” and “needless punctuation” is to lose the human aspect of the post.

Sometimes conveying information is a secondary or tertiary purpose to a piece of prose.

Also, not everyone is Raymond Carver. Some people are Henry James.

He talks about John McPhee, who has written a lot about diverse topics and also about writing as an art and process. The latter is interesting, if perhaps a tad overwrought and obsessive; the former is all over the place. In that the amount of thought doesnt necessarily translate into good writing. Case in point: "diversion of the field" which to be honest doesnt wow me in any way. This writer suffers from the same problem.

Is this an intentionally ironically styled comment? Serious question.

I feel like what he could be trying to describe is called a thesaurus

Do you find it fustian?

ppod wrote: "prescriptive aesthetic paternalism"

Made my day.

I'm not criticising it for being overwrought, rather that it is self-consciously attempting to be "elegant" in an unnatural way.

No. It is in a discursive style appropriate to the topic. Not what you find in textbooks, but not everything needs to be like a textbook.

What can be said about some of the Wiktionary entries though?

Since Webster's dictionary is out of copyright, it was used as a source for many entries on Wiktionary. https://en.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/Wiktionary:Webster%27s_Dict...

There's a category for entries that were imported mostly unmodified, with 26,433 pages. https://en.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/Category:Webster_1913


So the idea here seems to be that the author prefers to write English that is about a century old, preferably more. This will be inteligible to a modern reader so I suppose that's fine but it's striking that they resist (unconsciously?) admitting to it.

That doesn’t seem to be his point to me at all. Just because the definitions he is referencing are a century old, doesn’t mean he will suddenly start writing in an anachronistic manner.

His point to me is the modern dictionary has lost a lot of nuance behind what words mean.

I'm afraid you completely missed the point, probably by trying to read it too fast.

The author is pursuing flavor, not expeditiousness. Re-read it as a thing that tries to convey the pleasure in the activity of reading, beyond whatever value there may be in the data being propagated.

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