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3 Alternatives for Looking Up Words

Certain theories of psycholinguistics postulate that we store words in our minds much like dictionaries do. Linguists refer to this as a “mental lexicon.” There are some obvious parallels between our mental lexicons and the everyday dictionaries we are so accustomed to using. One is the fact that the words in our mental dictionaries are not stored at random.

We recognize words based on what they mean (the definition), other words that mean the same thing (synonyms), words that mean the opposite (antonyms), the function of the word (part of speech), as well as how a word is said (its pronunciation). All of these same pieces can be found in a traditional dictionary.

Where our minds differ (and what cannot be found in traditional dictionaries), however, are associations. One theory describes words as points connected with each other in our brains. Some believe that words are retrieved from our mental dictionaries through “spreading activation.” What this means is that we chronicle words via related or similar concepts.

While there are many different interpretations as to what kind of associations occur in our minds exactly, it is very likely that each one of us has an individual and unique representation of a given word based on our own life experiences and observations.

Given that associations are a plausible way by which words are stored and retrieved in our minds, it could be said that being exposed to such representations is also a helpful way of acquiring new word meanings. A learner may be more likely to remember a word when presented with a stimuli of various words related to a particular word’s meaning.

That being said, I would like to share a few non-traditional and alternative online dictionary options that may help facilitate your language (and particularly vocabulary) learning endeavors!

1) Wordnik

Wordnik is a dictionary community. It has some features that are not ordinarily available in standard dictionaries.

These include:
Examples of sentences using the word embedded within a relevant and recently generated content (with a link for you to see that context)
– A list of words found in the same context
– A list of rhyming words (same terminal sound)
– A tag feature : user generated categorization of words (to get an idea of some of their associations, which could be similar to yours!), as well as tagging by Wordnik
– A reverse dictionary showing words that contain the target word in their definitions
Lists (such as vocabulary lists) made by users that contain the given word
– When you scroll to the very bottom, you can also find visuals and sounds

2) Snappy Words

Snappy Words calls itself a “free visual online dictionary” where searching a word gives rise to a dynamic diagram.

Its features include:
– An interactive concept map that features color coded parts of speech as well as draws associations between words and concepts using parameters such as ‘is a word for,’ ‘is a kind of,’ ‘pertains to,’ etc
– The ability to search both one word items as well as two word items such as ‘lexical entry’or ‘Columbia University’

3) Panlexicon

This simple interface allows you to search a word which will then yield a list of other words related to it (as deemed by the Panlexicon algorithm). The cool thing about this search method is that once you search a given word, you can select another from the provided list and in turn narrow down your search for similar words related to both of those words.


Militza Petranovic
Militza is a Pedagogy and Research intern at Voxy. She is currently finishing up her master’s degree in Applied Linguistics at Columbia University’s Teachers College and received her bachelor’s degree in Theoretical Linguistics from the University of California – Santa Cruz in 2012. Militza is interested in researching all aspects of how web technology can help facilitate learning, particularly language learning.

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