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How to Make the Most of the Dictionary in OS X

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Apple’s system-wide dictionary on OS X is one of the more covert productivity tools available to Mac users. It’s more than just the Dictionary app, for instance you can add words to your personal dictionary to prevent spellcheck on things like Simplenote or foreign names like Penderworth. In this tutorial, I’ll show you what the Dictionary app is capable of when combined with its universal Look Up shortcut.

Using the Dictionary App

Researching a favorite TV show of mine on Wikipedia.

Dictionary, an app that’s built-in to OS X, appears very minimal at first sight. Its main screen prompts you to Type a word to look up in… [name of dictionary or thesaurus]. You can start typing to get live search results, and the app doesn’t require Internet unless you’re looking for something on Wikipedia. 

Speaking of Wikipedia, you no longer need to open the website to look something up on the reference giant. You can instead use Spotlight to search Wikipedia for it–see the bottom of results for this option. This will open in Dictionary app with a result.

You might notice that there’s an All tab to the left of your current dictionaries and thesauruses. This makes it easy to look up a word in all your sources. When it’s selected, you will be prompted to search with all your sources. Searches will be organized by source in ascending order. You can collapse the ones you don’t wish to display by clicking the arrow to the left of them.

Managing Dictionaries

It is often useful to have some international dictionaries installed for translating words and Apple made that possible. 

If you click the File menu and select Open Dictionaries Folder, you’ll find the folder that additional dictionaries can be installed in. All you have to do is drag a compatible dictionary file into this folder to install it. You can then display and change the order in the Dictionary app by heading to Preferences and checking the box beside each additional dictionary you wish to see. Dragging an item higher on the list will change where it is displayed in the app’s toolbar.

You can travel anywhere with this dictionary selection.

By default, the Dictionary app has ten single-language dictionaries, three bilingual ones, and two thesauruses, as well as Wikipedia and a dictionary for Apple’s system terms. 

If you have a dictionary file in the stardict format, you can convert it to one that works with Dictionary using DictUnifer, a free tool created for this very purpose. If not, writer and developer Michel Clasquin-Johnson converted a number of languages and offers them for free download. There are a lot of resources available to help expand the Dictionary app’s capability.

Handy Tips

Here are some things you should remember when navigating the Dictionary app. They’ll help you jump from place to place more quickly and obtain a bit more information about things along the way.

The virtual cover of Oxford's dictionary in OS X.
  • You can move forward and back by using the shortcuts Command-] and Command-[, respectively, or by swiping left or right with two fingers on your trackpad (one on a mouse) just as you would in Safari.
  • Change to the next or previous source with the shortcut Command-} and Command-{, respectively (don’t forget the shift key since it’s a secondary character) or by using the number keys combined with Command to select the applicable source.
  • You can view the selected dictionary’s cover, preface, and introduction by selecting Front/Back Matter in the Go menu. Only some dictionaries have this.
  • The number of results will be displayed in the app’s title bar.
  • You can have multiple windows open at once. Open one in the File menu or with the universal Command-N shortcut.
  • Click any word in the app to look it up in the selected source.

Using the Dictionary Around OS X

You can quickly look up a word anywhere in OS X by tapping it with three fingers in post-Lion, OS X 10.7+, versions or by secondary-clicking it and selecting Look Up [word]. This will display results in your top two dictionaries, along with Wikipedia. It’s great for inline research–no need to jump from Safari or Byword to the Dictionary app just to find a synonym. 

Do keep in mind that clicking any words in the little popup will not look them up as well. That’s a function exclusive to the Dictionary app.

The inline dictionary is handy and convenient.

Free to Read

That’s everything you need to know about using the Dictionary app more productively throughout your day. In this tutorial I have shown you how to navigate the Dictionary app efficiently, browse Wikipedia with it, install your own dictionaries, and define words anywhere in OS X. 

Now it's time to get back to return to your boisterous, or verbose, life. If you have any tips of your own, I’d love to hear them in the comments.

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