Some people collect dictionaries, some have never bought one in their lives -- but we all have them at our fingertips right now. If you have a Mac, an iPhone or an iPad, you've got a dictionary, and it is a good one. It's good enough to replace most concise dictionaries you can buy, and it's easier to look up than a book. We're not saying it's arduous looking things up a in book, but the fact that you have to turn away from what you're reading is reason enough that many of us pile on with a soon-forgotten vow that we'll look it up later. Here's an easy way to look up the definition of a word right there on your Mac -- and then if that isn't enough, we've an even easier way to do it at your fingertips.
This Pointers tutorial was written and tested on the latest OS X Yosemite and iOS 8 releases, but the techniques and most of the detail has been the same since the dawn of man.
The Dictionary app
OS X Yosemite includes an app called Dictionary. You'll never guess what it does. Open it up and have a look. You could go to your Applications folder and launch it from there, but instead wherever you are, whatever application you're in, call up Spotlight with a swift Cmd-Spacebar keystroke, type 'Dictionary' and unless you've got a lot of documents called Dictionary, just press Return. If you do happen to have a lot of documents called dictionary, scroll to the one with a red application icon, and then press Return.
The Dictionary application launches, and it looks like every dictionary you've ever used. Type in a word, and you get a definition of it. Nicely, the app gives you a tiny bit of the origin of a word: it's rarely useful, but it is always interesting.
What's significant here is how quickly you just did that. Now that Dictionary is open, you can just turn to it with Cmd-Tab or you can do the very same Spotlight tip to call it up. You can also just click on it in your dock. Whichever way you get to the Dictionary, it is fast and you can look up a word in moments.
We just don't think that's quite fast enough. Not quite.
Forget the Dictionary app
At risk of sounding like Time and Motion study people with stopwatches, clipboards and an agenda that involves firing you if you don't speed up, we are serious that you can and that you should look up words faster. Launching the Dictionary app and typing in the word you want to look up may take you only moments. Hang on, let's try it. Looking up the word "moderation" from scratch took us ... (gets out stopwatch, writes results on clipboard) seven seconds. Bet you we can do the same thing in four. No, it took five. A whole two seconds faster: never let it be said we don't save you time.
Plus, you only have to look up 3,598 words, and we've saved you an hour.
What we really save you with this next tip, though, is concentration. You're reading a sentence, you come to a word you don't know, then you see and understand the definition without breaking much of a stride. Any time you have to step away to look up something in an app or online or in a book, you then have to come back and re-focus. That's the real saving, that's what we want.
Luckily, that's what we've got. If you are reading in any Apple application, and most others, then right-click on the word you don't know. A popup menu appears, and the very first option is called Look Up. In OS X Yosemite, you can even set the trackpad (if you use one) to have a three-finger tap save you the egregious trouble of even having to select "Look Up" -- it will just provide you the definition, instantly. If you're in Microsoft Word, then right-clicking also brings up a menu headed Look Up, but that takes you to Microsoft's own dictionary.
The Apple one has actually expanded in OS X Yosemite: the first time you select Look Up since the most recent updates, you will get a note saying what's new about it. What is new is that as well as dictionary definitions, the same service brings you relevant recommendations from the App Store, it can tell you what films are playing near you tonight, and more. It's all excellent, except that it seems strange to us that you'd type "The Force Awakens," highlight it -- because it's three words rather than just the one under your cursor -- and then follow Look Up's links rather than just Google or Spotlight the same term. Each to their own.
That first time you use Look Up, you'll have to click the Continue button to dismiss the note about new services, but then and forever afterwards, you go straight to the definition of your word. Or so you'd expect. instead, you get the Wikipedia definition, which may or very often may not be the same thing. Right at the foot of the popup definition, though, there are options: Wikipedia and Dictionary. Click on Dictionary and, yep, you get the definition you were after, but you are also telling Look Up to get it right next time. Sure enough, the next time you look up a word, it's the dictionary you'll see first.
When you've read the definition and realized your friend means you should moderate your chocolate eating, an angry click anywhere away from the definition closes it and lets you continue what you were doing.
It's even quicker on iOS
Say you're reading a book on iBooks on your iPad or cramped up a bit on your iPhone. When you see a word you don't understand, in theory you can just tap once on it and get a popup control that includes the word Define. In practice, it varies from book to book. Heavily-stylized titles that mix huge numbers of images with text, video and audio tend to need two taps: one to say hello, we're here, can we get on with the words please, and the one to bring up that menu. Really what's happening is that the first tap brings you a little way out of the book; it's calling up the standard iBooks menus if the book has hidden those.
Whether it's a single or double-tap, though, you get that Define button, and we're quite sure you know what will happen when you tap it. For the second time you try this and every single time afterwards, you are exactly right: you get the definition. The first time you do it, though, you are likely to see nothing whatsoever. A completely blank screen.
Completely blank, but for the word Manage at bottom left. We don't think this is brilliant at all: for ages we'd look up a word, see the blank screen and it would never occur to us to tap Manage, because there was clearly nothing there to manage. When we did try it out of boredom one wet Sunday afternoon, we found that it should really be called "Make the Dictionary Work."
Tap on Manage, and you will see a list of possible dictionaries in different languages. Next to each of them is a download button: find your preferred language, and tap that. It downloads the whole dictionary surprisingly quickly, and thereafter you can look up a word just through the tapping on it and choosing Define.
That's our favourite way of using the dictionary, because it is the least interruption to our reading. We're not saying that Apple's Dictionary is the best but we are saying it's very good -- and that it is waiting for you at the tap or the press of a key or two.
Although, yes, we will admit this: sometimes when we're reading a paperback or an actual printed magazine, we have tapped our finger on a word and been surprised to not get a definition.
-- William Gallagher (@WGallagher