Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for the 'Dictionaries' Category

My Favorite Dictionaries

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

Here is a question I often receive: “What is or are your top choices for an English dictionary? I’d much appreciate hearing from you!”

That one is easy. My favorite hard-copy dictionary is the American Heritage Dictionary. It is the easiest to read and understand and it has extended etymoloties. None of the online versions of this work carries the etymologies by Calvert Watkins of Harvard. Of course, I use the Oxford English Dictionary but the best version of it is now on line ( and by subscription only.

The most comprehensive dictionary on line is I used it recently in updating our English frequency list and it consistently had words in it that others did not. It also contains Wikipedia articles on some of the more arcane words, but that is OK: it saves a separate search.

Others I use include, which I founded. It now apparently has the exclusive rights to Webster’s New World Dictionary by Wiley Publishers. It, too, has the American Heritage Dictionary as a secondary source though, as with the Yahoo version of AHD, it does not carry the excellent etymologies by Calvert Watkins.

For etymologies I rely on Etymonline by Douglas Harper, just up the road from me in Pennsylvania. This etymological dictionary is great for Romance language borrowings. For native English terms the Oxford English Dictionary is still the best online source. I use other hard-copy etymological dictionaries in my library but they are mostly in foreign languages.

The Edges of Water and of Words

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

Brock Putnam made a comment on riparian that brought to light a guiding principle I use in writing both the glossaries that Lexiteria produces and the daily Good Words on alphaDictionary. He wrote:

I’m most used to encountering it as part of a legal term: “riparian rights.” Several court cases (at least one of which went to the US Supreme Court some forty years ago) were concerned with riparian rights – the right of access to beachfront or waterfront land.

Usually, the issue is a contest between people who own waterfront (usually beachfront) property and the right of the public to have access to it. A significant case in New Jersey went all the way to the Supremes: the final decision of the court went back through American law, English common law, and finally resided in provision of the Magna Carta!

One of my editors made this point, too. I decided that the second part of my definition, “related to the bank of a body of fresh water”, covered the legal sense of the word. One of my peeves with traditional dictionaries is that they multiply definitions to the point that they overlap up to 90%.

I try to find what meanings have in common and create definitions that are general enough to cover as many traditional definitions as possible. You may have noticed yourself what I’ve been observing for decades: outside techincal vocabularies, the meanings of words tend to be vague and fuzzy, especially around the edges.

Dictionary of the Future?

Thursday, March 12th, 2009

The VisuWords website may offer a glimpse of dictionaries of the future. It extends the technology of The Visual Thesaurus by using different designs and color codes for different types of relations–and is a dictionary rather than a thesaurus with meanings added.  Synonyms are automatically available since the relationships are semantic rather than alphabetical.

All that is missing is the integrated grammar with the different forms of the words, e.g. drive, drove, driven, driving, something less important for English than other languages which have 30-40 verb forms, some regular, some not.

Anyway, it is fun to play with and dream about. Maybe we’ll bring it to alphaDictionary since the source is open.

Online Dictionaries

Monday, December 10th, 2007

I have an idea clattering around in the back of my head to write a series of reviews of online dictionaries. I think the time has come for this because the number of online dictionary sites has mushroomed since I mounted my first one back in 1996, when it was one of three (the others were and Merriam-Webster). I don’t have the time for this undertaking just yet, so I thought I would do a short forewarning here (of the dictionaries and my planned series).

Other than the Oxford English Dictionary (paid-subscription) site, the Merriam-Webster site and alphaDictionary, none of the new dictionary websites are run by lexicographers or linguists. The near sale of for $10 million shows how lucrative these sites can be. (alphaDictionary’s finances are quite misleading.) As more and more businesses invade this territory, the quality of the dictionaries placed on line become more and more a secondary concern. The term “dictionary” is one of the most searched words at the search engines, a marketing bonanza for anyone with a list of words and synonyms.

When first went on line, it offered access only to professionally compiled dictionaries: the American Heritage and the M-W medical dictionaries. However, it received a lot of competition from the One-Look Dictionary (a clever invention of Bob Ware, who sold it a few years back to a Colorado businessman). One-Look indexes almost a thousand online dictionaries so that a visitor may search them all at once. It includes M-W, American Heritage, and more than 900 others.

Perhaps for this reason began adding public domain dictionaries to its index. Today you can search Princeton University’s WordNet dictionary and the 1913 Merriam-Webster dictionary there. The problem with WordNet is its lack any capitalization, so someone has to edit it to make it serviceable. The problem with the 1913 Webster’s is that the majority of its definitions and much of the spelling are outdated, also requiring heavy editing.

Even though makes millions, it undertook neither of those tasks or, if it did, the results have not been published. The results are rampant errors throughout their returns. I was reminded when some time ago I received this as a return for a search of the exact meaning of the word charbon:

Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary – Cite This Source – Share This

Malignant \Ma*lig”nant\, a. [L. malignans, -antis, p. pr. of malignare, malignari, to do or make maliciously. See Malign, and cf. Benignant.] 1. Disposed to do harm, inflict suffering, or cause distress; actuated by extreme malevolence or enmity; virulently inimical; bent on evil; malicious.

So we are not just talking about the thousands of more subtle mistakes such as:

WordNet – Cite This Source – Share This
WordNet – Cite This Source – Share This
new york
WordNet – Cite This Source – Share This

which should never appear in any dictionary, even surrounded by correctly spelled entries, as these are. The errors are grievous and often do not appear on pages with conflicting correct entries.

But enough of this teaser for today. I actually intended this note more as a warning than as a teaser: all the glitters is not gold. Stick with American Heritage at Yahoo since the one at Bartleby’s gums up your browser with adware, cookies, popups, and popunders, with Merriam-Webster’s. If you have an extra $250 per year for an excellent dictionary, give the Oxford English Dictionary a try. It contains words we haven’t used for centuries but keeps up admirably with new terminology.