When you need a word's definition, translation, pronunciation, synonym, or antonym, you don't have to haul an enormous tome from the bookshelf, dust it off, and ruffle through its delicate pages like your grandparents used to do—you can just hop on the internet. Beside the standard-issue dictionary and spellchecker offered by most word processors and operating systems, there are several web-based language tools at your disposal that can get you just the information you need. Let's take a look at some of the best online language tools for word nerds and regular people who just want to say that word correctly in conversation.
Online Dictionary and Thesaurus Webapps
You already know that Google can give you definitions in search results—try it, search for
define thesaurus—but there are a few other dictionary webapps besides the obvious Dictionary.com that can also get you your definition fix (often with pretty pictures!).
In Firefox's address bar, type
definr/hangover andpress Ctrl+Enter to look up the word "hangover". Firefox will type the "http://" and ".com" parts for you.
When you just can't think of the name of that thing which you can picture in your mind, you want the Visual Dictionary. Go through what Adam describes as a kind of reverse 20 questions to get to the word you're looking for, starting at one of 15 visual themes and narrowing down your search image by image as you go (original post).
Slang, Catchphrases, Acronyms, and Common Mistakes
A formal dictionary will only take you so far—and will usually stop short when you need the definition of a catchphrase, buzzword, idiom, slang word, or acronym. When your dictionary fails you, take a look at some of these alternatives.
When someone uses a slang word or phrase (especially online) you don't recognise, proceed directly to the Urban Dictionary. This collaborative community dictionary has saved my bacon more times that I'd like to admit. Add this sucker to your Firefox search box or as a search keyword for quick access.
Along the same lines, What Does That Mean? is a community-run source of definitions (and calls for them) of idioms, catchphrases, and slang. This is the place you want to go to find out what "any who" or "pissed off" means (original post).
When it's a string of capital letters that stand for who-knows-what staring you in the face, the Acronym Finder can come to your rescue. If you always forget what the heck IIRC stands for, here's where to look.
Finally, if you still find yourself pausing over whether or not to use "effect" or "affect," the Confusing Words web site is the place to consult (original post). Search for one confusing word and see what word for which it's commonly mistaken, and see the difference between the two.
What, you not only have to read and write unknown words correctly—you have to say them, too? A few pronunciation helpers are available online for your benefit.
Perhaps my favourite of the bunch because of its convenience, the Pronounce Firefox extension lets you select a word on a web page, right-click it, and select "Pronounce" from the context menu to hear how it sounds (courtesy of Merriam-Webster (original post).
More Language Tools and Tricks?
To use these tools easily from the Firefox address bar, try installing Lifehacker's quick search bookmarks, which include several of the sites mentioned above. If you don't want to forget a definition once you look it up, do what del.icio.us user Tim Bonnemann does and use del.icio.us as a personal dictionary. Finally, if it's translations you're looking for, check out Wendy's previous feature on how to get lost in translation sites.
What are your favourite online dictionary, reference, and other word nerdery tools? Shout 'em out in the comments.