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Quick Tips: Dictionary tricks in Mac OS X

Do you want a quicker way to look up common words? Wish you had instant access to an encyclopedia? Need help with spelling or word usage? Or perhaps you'd like to find synonyms for a commonly used word or even learn how to pronounce it?

Built-in to Mac OS X is a very capable and flexible Dictionary application. You can find it in your Applications folder. It has much more functionality than a simple 'look-up a word' style dictionary though... and like many areas of your Mac OS X operating system has some clever ways to conduct dictionary and thesaurus searches and even access Wikipedia!

Now, I used the phrase "built-in" above, because of the high level of integration that the Dictionary has within applications like Text Edit, Safari, Mail, Pages, etc. Yes, you guessed it! You can use Dictionary without even launching the dictionary application. In today's tip I'm going to show you how to make the most of the dictionary in Mac OS X - and I have no excuse for bad spelling ;-)

"make the most of" =  use to the best advantage : he was eager to make the most of his visit. - represent at its best : how to make the most of your features.

Tip 1 - More than a Definition

Once you open the Dictionary application you'll notice the Tabs below the Toolbar which allow you to switch search types. You can conduct searches in Wikipedia right from within Dictionary as well as use it as a Thesaurus.

Simply type a word into the search field and either select a word from the list or press Enter to begin a search... I use the word "begin" very loosely here. I find searching so instant that I barely notice the time between typing and reading the results!

Click on the tabs to switch to the other Search types. If you prefer here are the shortcuts:

  • Command - 0 = View All search results
  • Command - 1 = Look up in the Dictionary
  • Command - 2 = Look up in the Thesaurus
  • Command - 3 = View results from Apple
  • Command - 4 = Look up using Wikipedia

Tip 2 -  Further Down the Rabbit-Hole

Often when looking-up a word you find another word which you want to find out more information about. To go down this dictionary rabbit-hole would involve you selecting, copying and pasting the word into the search field and conducting a search, right? Nope. Mouse over most words and you'll notice that the word turns into a hyperlink. Single click on the word and you'll be taken to it's definition. Again, you can switch search types at any stage. The Back Button will take you back to a previous search.

Tip 3 -  Search with Spotlight

So, let's move on to how Dictionary is integrated into Mac OS X technologies. First up is Spotlight. Use Command-Space bar or click on the Spotlight icon in the top-right of the menu bar and start typing a word you wish to look-up. In this instance, I've decided to search my Mac (and the Dictionary) for the word 'Live'.

Normally, I would recommend using the arrow keys to navigate through Spotlight's list... but as you can see in the picture above, hovering the mouse over an item for a second or two, reveals a yellow help box. In this case, hovering over our Definition, will display a mini definition for the word.

If you want further information, pressing Enter will launch the Dictionary application and conduct the search in the blink of an eye!


Tip 4 - Put it in Context!

In applications which make use of the Dictionary, like Pages, Safari, Text Edit, etc, you can right-click on a word to display a contextual menu. Most times, I'll use this when my fingers can't keep up with my brain and I've misspelled a word... to view and choose the correct spelling. However, in the case of finding a definition, simply right-click a word and from the contextual menu choose Look Up in Dictionary.

Again, this opens the Dictionary application and conducts the search. However, you may prefer to stay within the current application and find the definition without switching between applications. To achieve this you can change the way a definition or search result is displayed from within the Dictionary application.

Choose Dictionary > Preferences
Select the contextual menu to Open Dictionary Panel.

You can also change the order of the reference sources and the default font size here.

Now back in your Safari, TextEdit or Pages window, right-click on a word and choose Look Up in Dictionary. A Dictionary panel appears which displays the definition using the Dictionary or Thesaurus. If you want to view this in the full-blown Dictionary application simply click on the More... button.


Tip 5 -  Definition Short-Cut

If, like me, you're a sucker for keyboard shortcuts, then here is one you can use to impress your friends ;-)

Place the mouse cursor over a word (in an application that supports Dictionary)
Hold down Control-Command-D

The Dictionary Panel appears for the word. You can release the D key and with the Control and Command keys still held down get an instant definition of the word your mouse cursor is over!

Releasing the D and Control and Command keys together keeps the Dictionary Panel on screen focused on the selcted word. Now you can easily scroll through the definition and move your mouse without losing your definition panel.

Mac OS X Dictionary features are very powerful and provide a high level of integration with supported OS X applications. Looking-up definitions, synonyms and using wikipedia has never been so easy and fun!

If you need further help on this or any other Mac software issue visit us at www.macprovideo.com/forum/

Interested in learning more about Mac OSX? These tutorials will help you to become proficient whether you are starting out or looking for advanced tips, tricks and techniques! We'd love to hear from your. 

Rounik Sethi

Rounik Sethi | Articles by this author

Rounik is the Executive Editor for Ask.Audio & the macProVideo Hub. As an Apple Certified Trainer for Logic (and a self-confessed Mac fanatic) he's taught teachers, professional musicians and hobbyists how to get the best out of Apple's creative software. He has been a visiting lecturer at Bath Spa University's Teacher training program, facilitating workshops on using music and digital media tools in the classroom. If you're looking for Rounik, you'll most likely find him (and his articles) on Ask.Audio & macProVideo.com.


Jun 19, 2010
Hi, your article is very helpful, but I have a question. Is it possible to resize or make the pop-up dictionary window bigger?? It is ridiculously small to see.....
Jun 19, 2010
Hi Mike, Thanks. The Dictionary Panel (pop-up) cannot be resized... However, you could use the control+scroll wheel to zoom in if the text size is an issue. Not an ideal solution though. Would be nice if the panel window itself could be resized.
Dec 26, 2010
Could i add more dictionaries like 3rd party english-turkish?
Jan 30, 2012
Hello, Mike,
Could i add dictionary like english-lithuania translator to dictionary preferences window? How can I do so?
Thank you in advance.
Jan 30, 2012

I assume you were asking the question to me? ;-)

You can select Japanese-English in the built-in Dictionary in Mac OS X... but I haven't come across a Lithuanian add-on...

You could use Automator and/or Applescript to copy the selected text and have it open Google Translate where you can then find a definition of the word.

Alternatively, I found this page which might help:

Let me know how you get on.
Mar 28, 2013
Can I review my searching words in the Dictionary as a reference in the future?
Because closing the Dictionary will not keep them to me.
Nov 17, 2014
Yes, it is possible. You need to edit the style sheets (.CSS files) within the contents of the dictionary app.
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