If you’ve been coming ’round here for awhile, you know I have a thing for the dictionary. There’s, like, so much information in such a small space! It’s so efficient! And it contains all the building blocks for my work in one place! Aaaah.
But the dictionary’s a relatively new development, considering humankind has been writing down words since, oh, 2500 BCE or so. (We’re not going to quibble about dates; it was a long time ago.) When Jane Austen was writing—relatively recently—in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, no one spelled “correctly” because there just weren’t standards for that—or the standards were just beginning to be hammered out.
Samuel Johnson was one of the hammerers: he published A Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, and it became a best seller. This dictionary was arranged alphabetically rather than topically and contained textual references (that is, “use it in a sentence,” as your first-grade teacher used to say), in addition to definitions. It was the gold standard for more than a hundred and fifty years.
Fifty or so years after Johnson, Noah Webster published an American dictionary in 1805. It took another eighty years for the Oxford University Press to get in on the act; scholars there began work on the Oxford English Dictionary in 1884 and published all twelve volumes of that first edition in 1928. (According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the OED is the world’s most comprehensive single-language print dictionary.)
Me, I love my Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate eleventh edition, which is descended in a direct line from Noah Webster’s word book. A reader questioned me about that once. What was so special about Merriam-Webster? Was I dissing the OED? Not at all. I trust it and it’s certainly complete—but the MW11 is the preferred dictionary of many of the publishers for whom I work. Also, of course, Merriam-Webster is a dictionary of American English, which is what I use every day. And think about it: the OED may be a dictionary of the people, but it’s not really for the people: the second print edition is twenty volumes and $995. My MW11 was about twenty bucks.
Not that I use the big red book anymore. No, when you have your hands in the dictionary as much as I do, you need something online; it’s a lot faster than turning pages.
There are plenty of free online dictionaries, some better than others. Still, I would encourage you to stay with the tried-and-true; not all dictionaries are created equal. (Both Merriam-Webster and Oxford have an online presence.) Some online dictionaries have more information than others. More shocking to my lexicological sensibilities was the notion that words might be broken differently. For example, take the word experience. MW11 breaks it like this:
ex • pe • ri • ence
I was shocked to see another dictionary break it like this:
ex • per • i • ence
It may seem like a small thing, but publishing proofers hang on these sorts of issues. And of the two trusted free dictionaries I’ve linked above, only Merriam-Webster provides the word breaks.
Here’s something else that free version of MW provides: audio pronunciation. Yes! How many times have you cursed that phonetic spelling system with its accents and upside-down e’s and wished you could just hear it pronounced, definitively and correctly? You can. Click on the little blue speaker icon.
In time, you may wish to upgrade to a subscription service, if for no other reason than to avoid the ads. (Probably more importantly, neither Oxford nor MW offer every single word from their print editions in their free online versions.) I did this several years ago. And here’s yet another reason I like Merriam-Webster: the subscription service is $29.95 per annum (that works out to a little more than eight cents per day, if you’re keeping track). The OED, on the other hand—as fun as it would be to have access to—is $295 per annum and out of my budget. (To be fair, they also offer the Oxford Dictionaries Pro for $49.95; if you’re interested, check out the FAQs here.)
But I’m still fond of the recently updated online MW, from which I can access complete versions of the Unabridged, the Collegiate, the Collegiate Thesaurus, the Collegiate Encyclopedia, the medical dictionary, and both Spanish-English and French-English translation dictionaries. And they’ve just added a new feature they call “Rhymes With.” Type in upscale and you’ll get this list:
abseil, airmail, all hail, assail, avail, bake sale, bangtail, blackmail, blacktail, bobtail, broadscale, broadtail, bucktail, bud scale, canaille, cattail, chain mail, coattail, cocktail, contrail, curtail, derail, detail, doornail, dovetail, downscale, ducktail, e-mail, entail, exhale, fan mail, fantail, female, fife rail, fire sale, fishtail, folktale, foresail, foxtail, fresh gale, full-scale, gapped scale, Glendale, gray scale, greenmail, guardrail, Hallel, handrail, hangnail, headsail, hightail, hobnail, horntail, horsetail, impale, inhale, junk mail, Longueuil, lugsail, mainsail, mare’s tail, Mondale, moon snail, oxtail, pass-fail, percale, pigtail, pintail, pinwale, plate rail, pot ale, prevail, rattail, regale, resale, rescale, retail, right whale, ringtail, Sangreal, Scottsdale, sea kale, shavetail, shirttail, skysail, slop pail, small-scale, snail mail, soft hail, split rail, springtail, spritsail, square sail, staysail, strong gale, surveil, swordtail, taffrail, tag sale, telltale, third rail, thumbnail, timescale, toenail, topsail, travail, trysail, unnail, unveil, ventail, voice mail, wage scale, wagtail, wassail, whiptail, white sale, whitetail, white whale, whole gale, wholesale, yard sale.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”