Frippery, Froth: A User Critique of Online Dictionaries

Everyone knows the Internet is a churning, foaming ocean of sites offering every conceivable product, service, song, picture, video or idea. Usually, the quality and price of the items swirling in this squall vary slightly with each site. Hence why it’s useful to have so many of them.

But there is a genre of Web site of which we only really need one. And that is the genre of the online dictionary-thesaurus. They’re nearly all free (and if you see one that’s not, you’re completely invited to scoff out loud), and they all give you more or less the same definitions. So why are there so many online dictionary-thesauri? (Thesauri? Thesauruses?)

The answer to that question, alas, will remain a mystery. If you happen to know it, please share: the comment section is below. Otherwise, this article’s aim is to critique this plethora of online word-slinging sites, to help you ascertain which one you should stake your loyalties to. I know where mine are. Any feedback from you, including other dictionary sites you’d like to point out which I may have passed by, is appreciated. Now let’s get this going… The multifaceted dictionary-thesaurus-reference-translating tool from is consistently the first site listed in search results. Its totally unstoppable string of definitions from a variety of esteemed word guilds provides well-rounded view of a word’s meaning, including phonetic and audio pronunciation, and etymology, including the date of the first written record (“estuary”: 1538). How vivifying. This site’s busy front page already hints at trying too hard, but among the services listed are a learner’s dictionary for pupils of English, word-based games for kids (which, as a former kid, I would have scorned but at a teacher’s behest), and an open dictionary where one can submit definitions for uncharted words. The iPhone content seems ad-y, and the one-entry-per-word simplicity could be either just enough, or too little info. I did miss the subtle dictionary-to-thesaurus cross-functionality in play on the first site. Rather prosaic, overall. The front page of Yahoo! Or MSN comes to mind with the mashup of random info resources covering this page, including a Word of the Day (“febrile”), Article of the Day, This Day in History, Today’s historical Birthday (Miquel de Cervantes), horoscope, Quote of the Day, a hangman game, a space for my own personalized list of words, a weather report, and, oh yeah, a dictionary. I can look up word definitions, or even search on Google, the White Pages, Amazon, or eBay, if I plan on buying a “palindrome.” The ads-before-definitions policy is like a pebble in the shoe. Very rattlepated. The bitter aftertaste from the previous site makes me glower at this one’s arrogant headline, “the #1 Online Dictionary,” and the list of supporting reasons on the right doesn’t encourage me. However, the clean column of definition entries includes related word forms, synonyms, and usage examples in different parts of speech, with only a couple of banner ads to chafe the senses. Hyperlinks allow you to jump to the synonyms and other sections, and an audio pronouncer is a nifty addition. Coucicouci. Succinct, brief and clean, has no ad content, save for an unobtrusive affiliate link to Amazon. It performs only one function: looking up words — and it does this using a huge variety of databases of different breeds, allowing you to match prefixes and suffixes, or match headwords with Levenshtein distance one (whatever that means). Its DOS-like finish might appeal to the programmers, and its polite correction upon submitting a misspelled word is nice and professional. A compendious tool, if I may say so. This clean, well-composed site offers a word of the day, word of the hour, and even brazenly pushes the envelope to “word of the minute.” A word query brings back examples in popular and literary culture, synonyms, and translations in several languages (including the prestigious Pig Latin), and many more options via an index icon that annoyingly follows you down the page. It also seems to offer a lot of other strange options such as anagrams and rhymes, owing further exploration for anyone with time on their hands. A ludibrious site as far as dictionaries go. An immediate curiosity is the list of example searches on the front page, showing what you can type into the search box to alter or expand your query. For instance, *bird produces words ending in -bird, and expand:spam gives me actual acronyms for S.P.A.M. Can I do this on the other sites? However, a big problem comes with the jarring discovery that, rather than giving me definitions, it gives me a list of links to other sites where I can find definitions. Not cool. A second glance reveals an isolated box on the right containing a cursory definition; I thought it was an ad the first time. This site quickly became a fatuous inconvenience, and a big misnomer. Moving on. Dot-bizzes tend to have a used-car-salesman aura about them, and this one backs up this view with flashy banner ads and welcoming pop-ups. An un-formatted look has your query results resembling source code, and the entire site makes me wonder if I’m going to be suddenly redirected. It does contain an array of languages to translate to, but the site’s credibility factor is pretty severely sullied. Mephitic, feculent. This online dictionary offers a face-slap to other online dictionaries with its cocky line, “Word of the day? Try word of the second…”, and its claim to be the best and most convenient online dictionary out there. Granted, it is good for a quick look-up, with short, common-speak definitions and the option to click for more info (i.e. synonyms). One downfall is the placement of things; the definition meat is crammed into the upper-left, yielding the page to the sponsored-ad parsley. Also available is the full version, for anyone who feels obligated to spend money. Overall, this one is cheeky, but mostly talk — a bit of a blether. This stripped-down engine sympathizes with my cause, promising “no annoying adverts” and keeping its front page to the point. “If a word isn’t found, the search feature automatically searches other dictionaries and an encyclopedia, and shows you anything it finds,” it says, encouragingly. For most words, it brings back a quick definition, a few synonyms and forms, and a link to a Wikipedia entry for more info. For entries with no results — for example, “Encarta,” out of curiosity over whether it means anything but the encyclopedia brand — it takes you straight to an internally framed Wikipedia entry. (Yes, it seems Encarta only refers to an encyclopedia.) It’s efficacious in getting a no-nonsense definition. This seemingly independent site redirects your queries to (see entry #3), and is thus worth no further consideration. Disenchanting. This dictionary site seems hell-bent on translating all of your queries into Spanish, placing “Translate!” buttons next to all the “Search” buttons, and even worse, only spitting out a blunt, curt definition for your word, hidden among the lavish translating tools and translation software offers. In fact, the entire site screams “buy translation software,” a fact that is easily explained by the discovery that is just an extention of the LingvoSoft translation software company. ¡Bu!

Oddball dictionaries

These dictionary sites fall outside the range of your “typical” online dictionary, filling the niche for strange, weird, or just “specialized” dictionaries. A self-explanatory site: besides the ordinary dictionary functions, this one finds you rhymes. Your query of “maul” brings back all, aul, aull, ball, bawl, brawl, call, caul, crall, crawl … you get the idea. Also find rhyming phrases with more syllable power (mail call, masked ball, professional basketball) – or, and this is truly random, find examples from Shakespeare. (“Or I’ll so maul you and your toasting-iron.”) What gall. Word Central is the kids’ section of (see # 2). With colorful, cartoony graphics, little ad content and large text, it’s almost a refreshing break from some of the more spammy examples above. Its thesaurus and rhyme functionality are simple, if easy to stump with more complicated words. Once again, no one’s using the built-in game functions. A facile site overall. This interesting piece of programming takes your query word and shows you everything related to it in a visual brainstorm. Using color-coded “spokes” that mean different things (such as “is a member of” and “entails”), the graphic erupts like a rubber octopus, accompanied by a text explanation below. The bottom of the page offers a free IQ test, your score on which may ultimately determine how much use the site will be to you. But it can be called circean at least. This could be called the stingy, cheaper version of the above Web site, whose “trial version” allows you a limited number of searches, and which annoyingly attempts to sell you the full version after each query. The idea is the same as above, with less interesting graphics that take longer to load. The site’s literary content is interesting, but a little misplaced if you’re looking for a thesaurus. An otiose, though mildly curious tool.