“Dictionaries are like watches: the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true,” quipped Dr Samuel Johnson, writer of the first Dictionary of the English Language and all-round witticism machine, in 1784. His rule stills applies. Although dictionaries have migrated from physical to digital paper and no longer include a definition for “slubberdegullion” (“a paltry, dirty, sorry wretch,” according to Johnson), they’re still not infallible. So what’s the best online dictionary?
To find out, I pitched four big-hitters – Google Dictionary, Cambridge Dictionary, Wiktionary and Dictionary.com – against each other in a lexicographical fight to the death. We’re very scientific here at The Big Tech Question so I decided to carry out a series of crude “benchmarks” to show how their definitions, pronunciation guides and choice of synonyms vary. So, without further ado, it’s time for The Pie Test…
The best online dictionary: The Pie Test
Anyone who has used more than one dictionary knows that definitions of the same word vary greatly. “But who cares?” you cry. “They’re all basically the same anyway.” That might be the case, but subtle differences in definitions can impact the way you understand and use a word – especially if you’ve never heard of it before.
For example, while the Miriam-Webster and Oxford Dictionary (neither of which made it onto my shortlist) definitions of “vampire” may seem similar at first, the latter packs far more information into a single sentence:
“The reanimated body of a dead person believed to come from the grave at night and suck the blood of persons asleep.”
“(in European folklore) a corpse supposed to leave its grave at night to drink the blood of the living by biting their necks with long pointed canine teeth.”
While the first covers the Dracula basics, Oxford Dictionary adds that it’s a European myth, as well as the belief that vampires bite victims’ necks (the Miriam-Webster entry makes it sound like Nosferatu carries a straw) and, most importantly, that they have long pointy teeth. Pretty obvious stuff.
With that in mind, I chose a basic word very close to my heart to test the four dictionaries: “pie”. Here’s how they fared.
Oh dear. Google Dictionary captures the essence of the “baked dish” in its definition, but then throws a few spanners in the works. First, that’s one of the worst example sentences I’ve ever seen (even something like “oh look, there’s a pie over there” would have been better) and, second, I will fight anyone who says “quiche” is a synonym for pie.
Pie rating: 🥧🥧
Cambridge Dictionary keeps it short and sweet (sorry) with its definition of the British staple. The first example question is also decent – although it should have included the typical response of “oh, go on then” – but the second is unnecessary. Not a bad effort, but lacks filling.
Pie rating: 🥧🥧🥧
Dictionary.com combines the best bits from Cambridge and Google, adds gravy and bakes them for an hour (sorry again). Despite the obvious nods to American pies (“pudding” as a filling and the whole second definition), Dictionary.com adds useful details about the cooking process and other uses for the word. However, like the others, it’s still let down by the first example sentence.
Pie rating: 🥧🥧🥧
Blimey. Wiktionary’s winning entry has it all: a simple first definition, excellent example sentences and even a nod to Shepherd’s pie and pizza. If I was nit-picking, which I am, I’d say that it all looks a bit messy and Wiktionary could have gone into more detail about the fillings, but it’s still a solid effort. As The Big Tech Question is a family website, I’ll make no mention of the final definition…
Pie rating: 🥧🥧🥧🥧
The best online dictionary: The Audio Test
A key aspect of any online dictionary is the pronunciation audio file. Usually indicated by a speaker icon next to the word, they are a very useful tool for people learning English for the first time and even native speakers who, god forbid, don’t want to embarrass themselves by mispronouncing “ennui”.
Luckily, all four of our dictionaries have this function – for better or worse. I put them through their paces by listening to a selection of different words, including “water”, “colonel”, Worcestershire”, “thoroughly” and, you guessed it, “ennui”. Here’s how they got on.
Dictionary.com’s audio files are, to use the technical term, all over the place. When they do exist, they’re weirdly muffled, heavily accented and rushed (the audio for “water” is a case in point). If you’re looking for My Fair Lady-style tuition, look elsewhere.
I wasn’t expecting to be impressed by Google’s offering, but I found its guides were clear and mainly delivered in received pronunciation (RP) English – think every British film from the 1940s or the Queen. The only negative is that the icon isn’t as large as on other websites, but it’s still a reliable tool.
The only reason Wiktionary pips Google Dictionary is the fact that it offers both a British and American/Canadian pronunciation for most words. Take “water”, for example:
However, as you’d expect from a user-generated resource, many of the audio files are full of crackles and suspect pronunciation – as if someone’s recorded themselves reading out a list of a thousand words in their garden shed, which they probably have.
That brings us to The Audio Test winner: Cambridge Dictionary. Almost every entry (it was caught out by a few proper nouns) has two bright red buttons directly under the word: one delivers the British pronunciation, while the other shows how they say it across the Pond. Both are clear, crisp and even – and the high standard is maintained amongst all of the people who lent their voice to the website. Don’t believe me? Check out the entry for “antidisestablishmentarianism”.
The best online dictionary: The Synonym Test
That brings us to the geekiest part of a geeky article: how do the four dictionaries present their lists of synonyms – and how good are they? I know it’s the job of a thesaurus to find synonyms, but why not kill two avian creatures with one pebble-like artefact? As a test, I looked at how they coped with a simple adjective: “happy”.
For the second time, Dictionary.com puffs and wheezes at the back of the race: it only offers eight synonyms for happy and, to make things worse, you have to scroll a long way down the page to see them. Fittingly, it does include an antonym, though: “sad”.
Wiktionary is a little better with ten synonyms, including “orgasmic”, but again they’re hidden further down the page than I’d like and aren’t well flagged.
The fight for the coveted synonym crown was tough, but Google Dictionary was just beaten into second place. The tech giant’s offering includes a whopping 27 cast-iron synonyms for “happy” (although, sadly, “orgasmic” was missing), which are neatly presented directly underneath the definition. There’s even the option to see another huge list that includes idioms by clicking “More”. I was ecstatic/joyful/buoyant/elated…
So why did Cambridge Dictionary edge to victory? It has fewer synonyms and, horror of horrors, you have to scroll down to see them. The reason is purely aesthetic: Cambridge Dictionary presents its synonyms as a word cloud and puts the idioms front and centre, which can only be a good thing.
The best online dictionary: Verdict
It’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for: which online dictionary should have pride of place in your browser bookmarks? Despite both of their definitions being relatively simple, I would recommend Cambridge Dictionary or, if you’re in a hurry, Google Dictionary.
Although Wiktionary performed well in two of my tests, its word should never be taken as gospel – just like its sister site Wikipedia. As for Dictionary.com, the audio files are scratchy and eight synonyms for “happy” is anything but.
If you use an alternative online dictionary, or are just angry with my decision, please get in touch below in the comments section.