Blurring the lines: everything in one place

Traditionally, monolingual dictionaries, bilingual dictionaries, thesauruses, and encyclopedias were all separate books.

But online media makes it possible to provide all this information in one place. We are now beginning to see some convergence, with many dictionary websites combining some or all of these functions.

Dictionary and thesaurus combined

If you look up a word in an old-style thesaurus, you just get a long list of synonyms. While this might work fairly well for a confident native speaker, it is of limited value for most other users. But many contemporary online dictionaries include more sophisticated thesauruses, where (a) the synonyms are related to a specific meaning of the word you’re looking up (not just to the word as a whole) and (b) every listed synonym is hyperlinked, so that you can quickly look at its definition and see how it differs from all the other near-synonyms. This is a far more useful resource.

Consider a verb like ‘resolve’ in Macmillan Dictionary. It has two main meanings:

  • to solve a problem: the dispute was resolved by negotiation
  • to make a decision: she resolved to focus on her career

In the Macmillan Dictionary entry, you can see that each of these meanings links to a set of synonyms in the Macmillan Thesaurus.

For example, sense 1 links to a set of words headed ‘To successfully deal with a problem or difficulty’, and by clicking on this (or on the Explore Thesaurus button) the user goes to a page where similar words are listed. Each of these words comes with a short definition, and each links back to its full entry in the dictionary. This means the user can switch between dictionary and thesaurus quickly and easily.

Computational resources

In some cases, the compilers of thesauruses are supported by resources produced by computational linguists, using computer programs to explore the way words relate to one another. An important example of such a resource is WordNet®, a large lexical database for English developed at Princeton University. WordNet groups synonyms together according to their meanings, but also shows the place of each word in a bigger semantic network. For example, if you search for the word ‘plane’ in WordNet, you first see a list of its various meanings (an airplane, a carpenter’s tool, and so on), and you can then explore the network. For the airplane meaning, you can see lists of hyponyms (types of plane such as jet, seaplane, and bomber), lists of meronyms (parts of planes, such as wing and fuselage), and much else. WordNet’s structure makes it easy to use by computer programs, and it is widely used in computational linguistics and natural language processing applications.

Adding encyclopedic and multilingual content

Perhaps the most ambitious project for bringing different reference resources together is BabelNet. This resource automatically collates data from a huge range of sources, including WordNet, Wikipedia, and Wiktionary, so that we can see the links between words, people, places and other entities, across many languages. Its entry for ‘sting’, for example, explains the various meanings of the word (an insect bite, a confidence trick, and so on), but it also provides encyclopedic information about (among others) the musician Sting and the classic 1973 movie, The Sting. And finally, drawing on automatic translation software and other sources, BabelNet allows you to see translations of the word ‘sting’ in numerous languages. BabelNet is thus a semantic network, a multilingual dictionary, and an encyclopedia all available on a single website.

Your task

Share your thoughts and experiences of using the different online dictionary types.

Have you used them before?

Add your answers in the comments area.

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

Understanding English Dictionaries

Coventry University