Herewith is a critical webography of online dictionaries. Annotations by Philip Harvey. They are not arranged in any precise order, only as I find them online. You are invited to add your own favourites, and constructive critical remarks are most welcome. This list first issued on Eureka Street in March 2012.
This site claims to give access to 1065 online English dictionaries at once. The subject dictionary pages are exemplary in the field. Very amazing is the page with links to dictionaries of other languages. "Of the roughly 6,912 known languages and dialects in the world," it says (I like the word 'roughly'),"only 2,287 have writing systems and only about 300 have online dictionaries." For collectors, here is its bibliography of the English ones:
As with everything wiki, you can edit the entries yourself, with all the advantages and pitfalls that go with that. This leads to the disconcerting experience of finding words without definitions; Wiktionary is still waiting for them, which surely defeats the purpose of having a dictionary in the first place.
The Urban Dictionary
One of the best of the new term dictionaries and, unlike Wikipedia, each entry is loaded and defined by a true believer in the value of their word, i.e. no stubs. More than one meaning may be contributed to a single word, and visitors can click thumbs-up or thumbs-down to the definitions, an online etymology committee of self-appointees. Samuel Johnson said it was the poets who make the language, and The Urban Dictionary is worth visiting just to get a poetic cross-section of the world we now live in.
Sources standard English dictionaries in digital form, like Chambers and Macmillan, but also draws on Rogets, Flikr images, and Twitter. People who contribute are wordniks. The lists generated on the site are charming. For example, when I visited these were ten Recently Loved Words: praecordia, vociferous, serenity, tergiversate, azalea, canoodle, fecundity, onus, memento mori, demur. Memento mori is two words, but terms and phrases circulate through the site too.
Here is the digital edition of the 1755 classic. Much has been written about this book, but of crucial importance is Johnson’s decision halfway through compilation that English is not a language restricted by rules of inclusion. This move went against the Academy spirit of the 18th century, especially in France where a club still decides what is proper French. This vital difference is one reason for the creative and inventive energy of English to this day. The work is downloadable from here http://archive.org/details/dictionaryofengl01johnuoft Chancing on the internet, Johnson remembers his own definition for ‘network’: ‘Any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.’ I feel like that myself sometimes when I’m online. Johnson quoted Edmund Spenser in the Dictionary as an example of the use of ‘network’, lines equally applicable to the finery of the internet:
Nor any skill’d in workmanship emboss’d;
Nor any skill’d in loops of fing’ring fine;
Might in their diverse cunning ever dare,
With this so curious network to compare.
This is a specialist dictionary of terms for computer techheads, or anyone who has to know the bits and bobs of IT language. Outwit the geeks with this constantly updated vocabulary.
Calls itself the online dictionary for computer and internet technology. When I went on, among the recent terms added on the home page was nomophobia, "fear of being out of mobile phone contact." It seems a sense of security takes all sorts of forms, not just the form of a dictionary.
Behind the Name
There are several personal name dictionaries online. This and http://www.thinkbabynames.com/ are better than average, with etymologies and histories. Its homebase is revealed by a current popularity chart for each name use in the United States. The best name dictionary giving specific Australian currency and specificity is still only in print form. The citation is difficult to suppy as I have only ever seen this book once, in a paediatrician’s waiting room. This is proof that print is still way ahead of digital in all sorts of areas, and is easier to handle.
Gazetteer on Wikipedia
Curiously, this is one of the best search engines for place name site links that I could find on the internet. Place names are thick on the ground but place name (or toponymic) dictionaries are thin in the ether. For example, the Survey of English Place Names at the University of Nottingham http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/ins/survey/list-of-volumes.aspx is full to the horizon with volumes of its findings, but blowed if any of them are available online. There are gazetteers galore, but in any one of them you are hard pressed to find why a place was given its name. We can find anywhere in the world via Google Maps and the NGA GEOnet Names Server but still cannot be told how half these places got their names.
Orbis Latinus & the RBMS/BSC Latin Place Names
Two sites for anyone requiring the modern equivalent of Latin place names. These sites are favourites of rare book cataloguers like myself, who need to locate the place of publication of the 16th century Latin text (mint condition) that has just crossed the desk.
Produced by the dictionary.com people, this site comes close to the old-fashioned one-volume quick answer encyclopedias found in studies and kitchens. It draws on authoritative reference sources (e.g. Britannica, Columbia) with quality-controlled entries. Great for handheld screens.
Is the paucity of free online dictionaries for editors and writers symptomatic of the internet’s inability to handle usage? Do editors and writers today still reach for the paper page when correcting the idiosyncratic digital spelling of a contributor? No doubt many in-house dictionaries are available as pdf downloads, but when we must go to the oracle it is either by subscription (Chicago Manual of Style) or is still being printed with ink (Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors). The link above is to the top ten such works according to the New York Times: all still in book form in 2012.
The Online Slang Dictionary
This is the oldest slang dictionary (1996) on the internet. Slang has a short half-life. The borderline between new terms (cf. The Urban Dictionary) and slang is blurry. While many of the words here have stayed current, others have already acquired quaintness. (When will someone put Eric Partridge online?) There are several Australian slang sites, most of them rough around the edges and lacking a theory of taxonomy. Macquarie is to be preferred, though places like this are fun to drop in on: http://www.aussieslang.org/
Some people need their daily dose and word-a-day email services tend to this neurological craving. The New York Times has called this one "the most welcomed, most enduring piece of daily mass e-mail in cyberspace." Subscription is free, with over a million linguaphiles on the list. Another popular one comes from Oxford Dictionaries: http://oxforddictionaries.com/words/word-of-the-day You just sign up.
Provides all those zany, quirky words that fit tidily into a triple word score. The beauty of this site is its links to multiple definitions and obscure wacky words. The down side is that some of them are non-existent words that are anagrams of real ones; presumably this is in keeping with the mind pattern of total devotees.
Just as definitions of words can be found by googling ‘orange the word’ say if you want meanings for Orange, so specialist term lists can be found by entering the term followed by ‘dictionary’. This wonderful site of astronomical words was found by simply keying in ‘space dictionary’. Another good site is this one for children, the NASA picture dictionary: http://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/k-4/dictionary/index.html
As further proof, at random I typed in the first word that came to mind (‘clock dictionary’) only to discover this incredible site. Every imaginable kind of timepiece is explained, as well as all the technical terms of clock-making. The definitions here go into infinitely more detail than for the same word in any standard dictionary, even the OED, which shows why we need to get cagey in our pursuit of these words online. The words are out there, somewhere, defined at remarkable length.
Online Rhyming Dictionary
Any self-respecting poet will tell you that the best rhymes are always the ones that come naturally and unforced. There are plenty of songwriters, jingle-makers, and poets of all sorts however for whom a rhyming dictionary is the way out of a sticky situation. On this site you type in the dependent word and are given a selection of rhymes. Not all of them believe there are rhymes for ‘orange’.
The homepage starts with the A words (abalone, absinthe, achar…) and so on to Z (…zest, zinfandel wines, zucchinis) so they are all in front of you. This is preferred to screens on some food dictionary sites that present you with a solitary Search Box, as typos are inevitable and you are denied the joy of browsing. The link to Orange Peel in Kitchen Dictionary gives me a number of tangy facts and has leads to recipes using orange peel.
Online Etymology Dictionary
“This is a map of the wheel-ruts of modern English,” according to the homepage. An extraordinary site that sources, amongst others, the 2nd edition OED, Weekley, Klein, Barnhart, Holthausen, and Kipfer & Chapman. Hours of endless exploring. Here for your enjoyment is its entry for Orange: “c.1300, from O.Fr. orenge (12c.), from M.L. pomum de orenge, from It. arancia, originally narancia (Venetian naranza), alteration of Arabic naranj, from Pers. narang, from Skt. naranga-s "orange tree," of uncertain origin. Loss of initial n- probably due to confusion with definite article (e.g. une narange, una narancia), but perhaps influenced by Fr. or "gold." The tree's original range probably was northern India. The Persian orange, grown widely in southern Europe after its introduction in Italy 11c., was bitter; sweet oranges were brought to Europe 15c. from India by Portuguese traders and quickly displaced the bitter variety, but only Mod.Gk. still seems to distinguish the bitter (nerantzi) from the sweet (portokali "Portuguese") orange. Portuguese, Spanish, Arab, and Dutch sailors planted citrus trees along trade routes to prevent scurvy. On his second voyage in 1493, Christopher Columbus brought the seeds of oranges, lemons and citrons to Haiti and the Caribbean. Introduced in Florida (along with lemons) in 1513 by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon. Introduced to Hawaii 1792. Not used as the name of a color until 1540s.”
Oxford Dictionaries Blog
This attractive site is loaded with articles and leads about words. They can be shared on Facebook and comments twitter about. I accidentally came across a word study of ‘serendipity’, which was “invented by the writer and politician Horace Walpole in 1754 as an allusion to Serendip, an old name for Sri Lanka … [Walpole] explained … that he had based the word on the title of a fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip, the heroes of which ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of ’.” More fun can be found at the new terms section of this site: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/tag/new-words/
History Today Historical Dictionary
The site “is a compendium of facts, figures, mini-biographies and definitions of historical terms. It covers people, places, key events and epochs. Each entry is concise and expertly written, and the dictionary is ideal as a study tool or to improve your knowledge of history.” The valuable links to articles in the journal itself suggest that this dictionary also acts as an index.
Postmodern Bible Dictionary
Of the making of online Bible sites there is no end and the search thereof is a weariness of the flesh. Many free online Bible dictionaries are outdated. Then we have to be extra careful about the scholarly interests, if any, of those coming from particular Christian traditions. The reputable standard texts (Anchor Bible, Interpreter’s Bible &c.) are either only available through subscription or are still only in print. Dr Tim Bulkeley of New Zealand showed what might be possible online (see link) though his hyper-text commentary on Amos.
Ditto theology. This page off http://www.a-z-dictionaries.com/ is typical of attempts to lasso in as much online and print information meeting the approval of the invisible editor. As with other specialist reference, online and print products vie with each other for excellence and authority. Some of the best dictionaries are still only with the presses.
John Hardon’s ‘Modern Catholic Dictionary’ (1980) online. Then take your pick from an array of homemade Catholic dictionaries, for example http://www.thesacredheart.com/dictnary.htm Various places have the pre-Vatican II Catholic Encyclopedia (1917):
While some of the information here stretches credibility (e.g. Wikipedia will tell you more about Saint George than you thought possible), it presents indispensable insights into an historical worldview. It is far more thorough than Wikipedia, for example, on the outcomes of the Councils of Orange.