Tips & Shortcuts

Quick Tip: 5 Ways to Grab a Definition in OS X


If you encounter a litterateur with a fondness for sesquipedalian verbosity, what chance do you have of keeping up with his pedantic, polysyllabic rhetoric? Fear not, the odds are well in your favor if you're a Mac user who is acquainted with the various way to grab a quick definition. Today I'll show you not one but five different methods for utilizing the OS X dictionary on the fly.

1. Open the Dictionary App

I admit, I'm cheating on this one as it couldn't really be any more obvious. If you're new to the Mac though, it's important to know that there is indeed a built-in Dictionary right in your Applications folder.

Use of the Dictionary app is completely straightforward: type in a word, get a definition. How do they think of these things? The thing to keep in mind is that there's a lot more here than a simple dictionary. In fact, it's four reference guides in one.

The OS X Dictionary Ap
The OS X Dictionary App

In addition to the Dictionary, there other three sections are Thesaurus, Apple and Wikipedia. The Apple section is a great place to look up something that is specifically app related. If someone references some random piece of Apple tech like Rosetta, you can use this tool to find out just what the heck they're talking about.

The OS X Dictionary App
The Apple section gives you bite-sized definitions for terms in the Apple universe.

2. Command-Control-D

The Dictionary application is all well and fine, but do you really want to go through the trouble of opening the app every time you want to see a quick definition? That'll take a whole three to five seconds of your day! Who has time for such an extended activity?

The good news is that there's an even faster way. Simply hover over a word, such as "polysyllabic," and hit Command-Control-D to see a little pop up window with the definition.

The Dictionary Pop Up Menu
The OS X Dictionary App

If you need to look up a phrase, try selecting multiple words with your text cursor and hitting the same shortcut (try it on this: Mountain Lion). Notice that this little popup automatically gives you results from all of the relevant data sources.

The Dictionary Pop Up Menu
Try highlighting multiple words.

3. Three Finger Tap

The pop up menu from the previous step is pretty dang handy, but the keyboard shortcut isn't exactly the easiest thing in the world to remember. If you prefer to take the gesture route, you can get the same little window by hovering over a word and tapping your trackpad once with three fingers simultaneously.

dictionary gesture
Tap the trackpad with three fingers to look up a word.

To be sure that your system has this feature and that it's enabled, hit up the "Trackpad" Preference Pane in System Preferences. It should be the third list item under the "Point & Click" tab.

4. Spotlight

Another lightning fast way to grab a quick definition is to use Spotlight. Simply hit Command-Space to open the Spotlight menu and type in the word you're looking to define. Somewhere near the bottom of the results should be a "Look Up" item with the Dictionary app icon next to it.

Spotlight Dictionary
Spotlight is another place to grab a quick definition.

You can click on this item to bring up the actual Dictionary app, or simply hover over it to see the definition without launching any extra apps. This ability to hover over Spotlight options is fairly new and might not work if your system isn't current.

5. Alfred

This is the only one on the list that isn't built directly into your core operating system, but enough people have Alfred installed that I thought it was worth a mention.

Grabbing a definition from Alfred is pretty fast and easy. Simply hit your Alfred shortcut to bring up the main window and type "define." In reality, you don't really have to type the full word, usually "de" plus the tab key is enough to do it for me. From here, begin to type in the word that you want defined.

Alfred will give you a list of possible words that updates in real time as you type. You can select any of these to launch the Dictionary app, but you often don't need to go that far as partial definitions appear below each result.

Alfred Define
Alfred's Define Feature

Go Forth and Define

There you have it, five super fast ways to grab a definition in OS X. Now that you've read my suggestions, leave a comment and let me know how you go about looking up a word in OS X. Do you use the methods listed here or something else? Let us know!

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