[Zetta’s Reference Desk] – A Dictionary


dictionaryThe most useful writing reference is also the most obvious. It’s so obvious that it should have been my very first recommendation for “Zetta’s Reference Desk,” but it wasn’t because I/we take it for granted!

Actually, this isn’t so much a recommendation as it is a requirement.

Every writer—or person who wishes to be considered one—needs to make friends with a good dictionary. As you can imagine, not all dictionaries are created equal. Years ago, I studied library science and one of the things we studied and analyzed were dictionaries and their components.

Well, I’ve slept since then and can’t remember the details, but I do have a few suggestions when it comes to choosing a dictionary. The following is a list of features I look for in a dictionary because this is the info I like to have on hand. You may not require as much. There’s a variety of dictionaries out there, and the best one for you is the one that suits your needs.


1) Number of Words Defined

You can get abridged dictionaries and unabridged dictionaries. Apart from the number of words that can be found between the two types, other things to consider when picking between abridged and unabridged include:

  • Length of definitions (with regard to clarity and concision)
  • Quality of definitions (does it include part of speech, spelling variations, etc.)
  • Pronunciation key
  • Ease of use

2) Etymology

Merriam-Webster defines “etymology” as:

: an explanation of where a word came from : the history of a word

: the study of word histories

So what, you say. Why does this matter?

Geeky Answer: Apart from being interesting, knowing the history and origin of a word reveals a lot. You can see how different languages influence each other and even help you understand languages foreign to you when you see how a word is constructed.

Practical Answer: Writing historical fiction is hard enough, but it also needs to sound authentic. Even if you’re writing from the historical perspective from the last 50 years, changes in language is subtle. A word we may use every day today may not have existed in common use a few decades ago—and I’m not talking about something obvious like “selfie.”

Pop Quiz!

When was the first known use of the word “selfie”?

You can find the answer in a good dictionary! Try it and post your answer (the year and the dictionary you used) in the comments.

3) Synonyms/Antonyms (optional)

A dictionary that offers at least a few examples of each would be nice, but it’s not entirely necessary. A good thesaurus (another recommended resource) should be a part of your personal library.

4) Niche

I’m focusing this post on your basic, general dictionary that we will all use at one point or another. But there are specialized dictionaries (e.g. law dictionaries, medical dictionaries, children’s dictionaries, slang dictionaries, etc.) that focus on a certain niche or topic.

5) Convenience

In this Digital Age, people have come to expect to find everything online, and with the help of the Internet, a person can probably source at least 80-90% of the information they need.

If you spend most of your time in front of a computer like I do, using online dictionaries are very convenient. My favorite online go-to is Merriam-Webster Online. It has the first three components I list above while giving you access to other resources. I’m cheap and use the free access (which limits the number of look-ups you can do in a day, I’ve found), but you can pay to download the dictionaries for about $20.

Another good online dictionary is perhaps the granddaddy of them all: the Oxford English Dictionary, the OED.

However, I’m still quite old school and proud of it. I like—and still use—an old fashioned print dictionary at times. You can find good deals on print dictionaries at used bookstores. And there’s something to be said about old, “out of date” dictionaries in that they are still useful because they show the evolution of language.

Dictionaries aren’t updated very often because words have to pass several tests before they are considered worthy of inclusion, and words can be removed if they become so obsolete to warrant it.

I don’t know how often dictionaries are updated today, but “back in the day” when everything was produced in print, it wasn’t uncommon for a decade or more to happen between editions.

Remember what I said above about etymology and the history of a word? What better way to find old words than in an old dictionary? Considering how some dictionary publishers are not producing print dictionaries anymore, these door stoppers may become quite collectible in the future.




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