World Wide Webster

Mac OS X Dictionary Application
I’ve done a lot of trash talk about Mac OS X Tiger but I still resolutely insist that it kicks ass, and one of the reasons why is the operating system’s new Cocoa-based dynamic dictionary and thesaurus lookups. This feature has barely been publicized by Apple, oddly enough, but even on its own, it would be fair to say that it accounts for at least thirty dollars’ worth of the US$129 Tiger sticker price.

You can invoke a dictionary lookup within any Cocoa application — one of the best indicators of those is the presence of the notorious font panel, but Safari counts too — by holding down command-control-D and simply hovering over any given word. What results nearly instantaneously is a contextual display of that word’s definition as recorded in the Oxford Dictionary (or synonyms as culled from the Oxford Thesaurus). Both the dictionary and the database are stored locally on your hard drive, so the feature is thankfully not contingent on the presence of an Internet connection.

Contextual Dictionary Lookup

Self Services

This is the kind of feature that, in prior iterations of Mac OS X, might have been relegated to the Services submenu, located beneath the application menu (and sometimes available by control-click-invoked contextual menus). It’s always struck me that the functionality available there has been unjustly ignored by virtue of its deprecated location in the user interface; even I rarely remember to access anything available in that submenu, and I generally know what’s available to me and how handy it is.

Above: Look it up. The new Tiger dictionary, not exactly getting it right on the first try, but handy nevertheless.

Tiger’s dictionary is a small step forward for the usability of such system-wide services. It would have been a larger step forward if only Apple had taken some effort to feature it more prominently in their marketing efforts for Mac OS X. The inclusion of such basic reference tools isn’t exactly sexy, but the fact that it isn’t relegated to a single productivity suite, as is the dictionary in Microsoft Office, is a big deal to me. Plus, I know lots of people who could seriously benefit from having more readily available access to a dictionary. Seriously.

  1. You are reading my mind today. I was just commenting to a friend earlier as to how often I’ve used that dictionary just today. Trust me, when you start getting pretentious and using words like “loquacious” you love that a definition to confirm your usage is only a shortcut away.

    Something I just noticed, when dealing with hyphenated words, if you click the second word of the hyphenate (there’s a word I had to check) it will give you the definition for just that word. Clicking the first word of the hyphenate gives you the full definition for the combination.

    ie: e-mail. Clicking the second word gives you the definition of mail. clicking the first word (the e) gives you the definition of “e-mail”

  2. Hmmmmm … I can’t wait until I install Tiger, but I think I will wait until they iron out some of the more annoying bugs. I just purchased my ibook about 2 months ago and I’m loving it. I think I’ll wait another 1-2 months before I dive into Tiger.

  3. One could argue that these are the kinds of services that should be integrated into Windows.

    I wouldn’t mind having a system-wide dictionary, or even a a nice spell checker, instead of redundantly having a them installed in different programs. But I guess that won’t happen while Microsoft Office still exists.

  4. The built in references are indeed a great addition to the existing contextual spell checking, but it’s a shame they are not yet localised. Here in the UK, Tiger currently ships with the US dictionary and thesaurus, and while it looks like other languages could be catered for, they are not yet available.

  5. Richard, I’m sure more dictionaries will follow at some point. If not the OED then perhaps someone else will supply one and not necessarily through Apple. Like you said there certainly appears to be support for more than just a dictionary and thesaurus and certainly more than just one language.

    Just somet things off the top of my head but how hard would a copy of Bartlett’s or Biographical dictionary, or even some sort of multi purpose reference like the New York Desk Reference be to wedge in there. They all rely on word lookups which obviously does quite well. Course that might require a name change to something along the lines of 🙂

  6. Just to be clear, I’m not entirely sure that this Dictionary feature/application is truly a digital version of the Oxford English Dictionary. The label says simply “Oxford Dictionary,” and there appears to be no licensing credit listed in the application’s About screen. Just so people know before they go citing the authority of Mac OS X Tiger’s definitions…

  7. According to Apple’s site, it’s based on the Oxford American Dictionary.

    “Look up troublesome words in a new dictionary and thesaurus system application based on The New Oxford American Dictionary.”

  8. Pity that Apple Mail’s spellcheck does not use the same lookup as the dictionary function.

    Words that are marked incorrect by spellcheck are correct when you look them up via dictionary (eg “whinge”).

    I know this is probably tied into localisation issues but it’s slightly aggravating to be made to doubt your literacy on a routine basis 🙂

  9. That’s bitchin’ — so quick and easy. And it’s true that in baseball, it’s important to have a large earthenware container that controls the game. :]

  10. I’ve long been disappointed with the trend towards using the web for dictionary access. A dictionary and thesaurus are must-haves all the time IMHO, rather than extras while connected to the internet.

    Here’s a blast from the past – Jobs’ old company, NeXT computer, had Websters bundled with the OS, as well as Oxford’s Thesaurus (I think it was Oxford’s). Less used was the included on-line complete works of Shakespeare (no, really!)…

    found a photo here:

    An easter egg in NeXT Websters was the definition for the word “naive.” If you were asked to look it up, and had a photo of yourself saved to the computer’s user-photo directory, then it would display your picture inline with the definition 🙂

  11. See… this, and the other items in the SERVICES menu are perfect for RIGHT-clicking, but Apple’s stubborn refusal to cave means that they are forced into hiding the functionality up where we also hide QUIT.

    * le sigh *

  12. This cool feature doesn’t seem to work in Safari, Camino, or OmniWeb. Aren’t these cocoa applications? Am I missing something?

  13. For the ones amongst us stuck With windows at work or at home, I suggest you install Babylon ( It does exactly what the OS-X dictionary does except you can download new dictionaries or use online ones. I couldn’t do without it nowadays: I just press CTRL and right-click on the word I want and I have the definition of that word in every dictionary I’ve configured Babylon to use. The software is not free but I found that the small price they ask for it is well worth it.

    Now, what needs to happen is for Apple to contact Babylon (or the other way round) and the next version of OS-X to be able to read Babylon dictionaries and download them from their web site or use the online version directly 🙂 I’m sure they can work something out!

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