Word Traveler: Using a Reverse Dictionary
to Find the Word You Need

This feature is for all word lovers as well as those studying for the SAT and seeking to learn new vocabulary.

There is a word for your idea. We all know the frustration of trying to find the word for what we mean, locating the precise word for what we want to say. For people who have an idea, concept, or definition but who do not know, cannot remember, or are uncertain of the word, there is help in the form of a reverse dictionary or reverse lookup.

A reverse dictionary takes a user from a "meaning" they are aware of to the "word" they need. In conventional, alphabetically arranged dictionaries, a user has to know the word to read about its meanings. If you do not know the word, you cannot look it up in an alphabetical dictionary! An example of this is: what is the adjective used for the words church (ecclesiastic) or goat (hircine, capric, caprine)? Think of it, how would you find these in a standard alphabetical dictionary? But in a reverse dictionary, you could look under goat and you will find goat, like a: caprine, hircine, hircinous. In a reverse lookup, you could look up adjectives with the word goat in the definition.

How do you find what you want in a reverse dictionary? "Cue" or "clue" words are the words you have in your mind (or tip of your tongue) that lead you to the "target" words. The dictionary compiler has selected the same familiar words that you, the user, would think of when trying to find the target words. The cue/clue words are carefully framed in ways that make the target words readily findable.

For example, a user may want to know:

bread-rising substance: leavening
doctor who specializes in eye disease: ophthalmologist
eye specialist: ophthalmologist
go off: detonate
goat, adjective: hircine, capric, caprine
goat, female: nanny goat
shovel used by pizzamakers: peel
shedding of feathers or fur by animal: molt
solve a puzzle: decipher
U.S. motto: e pluribus unum

Though it would be impractical to provide every possible cue/clue to a target word, reverse dictionaries attempt to include the most probable and generative choices. Even if the user has never used a reverse dictionary, he/she will come to understand what constitutes useful and unuseful cue/clue words. It is really easy to get the hang of it. Good bets are the more concrete cues/clues like ear, church, office, clear, emotion, and soften. Less useful or unuseful cues/clues might generate too many entries. Examples like tiny, first, fat are cues/clues which could be used to describe hundreds of target words - which would make it much harder to narrow the search to find the desired target word. In some cases, a reverse dictionary may try offering several cue/clue words to help ensure the users will find the word they need. For example:

design using initial letters of a name: monogram
initials of a name, in an emblem: monogram
letters of a name, in an emblem: monogram

When you use an online reverse dictionary, you are often given full definitions during lookups. But with a print reverse dictionary, it is important to use it in conjunction with a good collegiate or unabridged dictionary. By looking up definitions in a traditional dictionary, you can be sure that you have found the right term for the idea you had in mind.

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