The Friday Fillip

Try as I might on Fridays to stay away from our stock in trade — words, that is — I can’t resist the occasional fillip about language. And today I want to introduce you to something that should have been an old friend on the internet, OneLook.

At its simplest, OneLook is a meta-dictionary site that searches more than a hundred online dictionaries and their hoard of 19,000,000 definitions. This in itself might be useful if you have a term the meaning of which is contentious and you want to see the range of meanings ascribed to it. But a simple search for meaning is only the start of the fun. OneLook lets you do other and interesting things with its vast index.

You can search for results in any of Chinese, English, French, German, Italian, Spanish. Or you can restrict your search to dictionaries that deal in art, business, computing, medicine, miscellaneous, religion, science, slang, sports, or technology. (No law, note; there never is. But that’s okay: it’s Friday.) Then the real fun begins.

Two concepts make OneLook really appealing: first, there’s its sophisticated use of wildcards, and then there’s its “reverse lookup.” Right on the main page, they offer examples of the various ways you can structure searches using the general (*) and the particular (?) wildcard:

Example searches

bluebird Find definitions of bluebird
blue* Find words and phrases that start with blue
*bird Find words and phrases that end with bird
bl????rd Find words that start with bl, end with rd, and have 4 letters in between
bl*:snow Find words that start with bl and have a meaning related to snow
*:snow or :snow Find any words related to snow
*:winter sport Find words related to the concept winter sport
**winter** Find phrases that contain the word winter
expand:nasa Find phrases that spell out n.a.s.a.

This will be fiendishly useful for crossword puzzlers. OneLook knows this, and they’ve added a bonus feature for that cult crowd: you can set a preference such that the particular wildcard searches only for letters, ignoring punctuation, thus letting you cheat on get a leg up on those jammed-together phrases that the NYTimes thinks are amusing.

You’ll have noticed, I’m sure, the colon in the examples box above. This is, in effect, a call for the reverse lookup, something that will become increasingly handy as you grow older. The feature is also useful for generating a list of members of a set — the example they give is “Canadian authors”.

Enough explanation. There’s more, but you can find it for yourself. H?pp? h*ting.

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