How to quickly look up words in OS X

DictionaryIconXWhen browsing the Web, reading documents in programs TextEdit or Pages, you might come across a word or two that you do not know, or perhaps you are composing a document and need to look up synonyms. While there are online options such as and its sister site which offer great word research tools, Apple includes a couple of quick ways to look up a word in OS X.

Contextual Menu

By right-clicking a word, the system will select it and offer a contextual menu for handling this selection. Items in this menu include copying and pasting, but at the top of this menu should be an option to look up the word.

Dictionary menu in OS X

The Dictionary menu shows the definition, thesaurus, and Wikipedia entries. Clicking the sections (arrows) will open their respective categories in the Dictionary application (click for larger view).

When you choose this option, a small bubble will appear that contains associated definitions, including a dictionary reference, thesaurus entries, and the term’s Wikipedia entry, if present. While these options show a quick lookup, you can dive further into the word by clicking the respective Dictionary, Thesaurus, and Wikipedia categories to open the word in the appropriate section of the OS X Dictionary application.

In addition to the local options for looking up words, the contextual menu should also have an option to look up the word in your default search engine.

While right-clicking a word will give you these contextual options for the word, you can also look up information on multiple words, such as those which are part of a phrase. Just click and drag your text cursor to highlight several words, or even select a few characters of a single word, and then right-click the selection. When you do this, the selection will be the term used for the dictionary and Web search.

Spotlight Menu

Word definition lookup in Spotlight

Terms searched in Spotlight can be looked up by highlighting or clicking the Dictionary link (click for larger view).

Another option for quickly looking up a word is to use the Spotlight menu, which can be quickly accessed using Command-Space and then typing in your desired search term. While this menu will show you applications and documents on your system that contain the search term, it also has a “Look Up” section with a link to the dictionary.

If you use the arrow keys to select this link, a preview window will pop up next to the menu that contains the definition of the searched term, if available. You can then click the Dictionary link or press Enter with it highlighted, to open the term in the Dictionary application.

In addition to the Dictionary link, the Spotlight menu contains options to search Wikipedia and the Web for the search Term.

Unfortunately Apple does not have an option to move these specific Spotlight menu items to the top of the menu; however, if you use these frequently then you can press Page-Down (or Fn-down arrow) to quickly move the selection focus to the bottom of the menu where these terms are located. You can also simply hover your mouse over this link to highlight it.

3 thoughts on “How to quickly look up words in OS X

  1. Strod

    A couple more Dictionary-related tips:

    – Command-control-D while the mouse pointer is hovering over a word brings up the dictionary “bubble”. This is slightly faster than right-clicking and selecting from the contextual menu.

    – The Dashboard has a Dictionary widget. It is not as fully featured as the full app, but it’s faster to access. You have access to the same dictionaries you have set up in the Preferences of the Dictionary app.

    – You can install more dictionaries for languages that are not included, or bilingual dictionaries in case you frequently read or write in a non-native language! This is a good website with compatible dictionaries:

    – You can also use a program called DictUnifier to convert from StarDict (apparently a popular format) to OS X format, but I have never used it:

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