7 Dictionaries That Are a Little Different

Detail, Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, 1941.

If you’re reading this magazine, we suspect you possess a formidable vocabulary. (Forgive us for being so bold, but you have that look about you.) Whether you’re a whiz at Wordle, a grammar geek, or a student of the sesquipedalian style, you probably welcome the occasional excuse to reach for your favorite dictionary. As a library, we have thousands of dictionaries, in every language from Albanian to Zulu. But not all lexicons are alike. Here’s a selection of specialized dictionaries you should know about, when an ordinary word search just won’t do.

CONCEPTUAL DICTIONARY: Sometimes known as a reverse dictionary or descriptionary, a conceptual dictionary is good for when you know what something is, but not what it’s called. Somewhat like a thesaurus, entries are organized by concept—such as art or nature—rather than alphabetical order, with broad categories gradually narrowing down to more specific terms and expressions.

DICTIONARY OF CLICHÉS: Whether you employ clichés like they’re going out of style or avoid them like the plague, you can identify nearly 4,000 of them with this handy reference. A helpful tool for trimming flabby prose and making your writing crystal clear.

DICTIONARY OF SIMILES: When your search for the perfect analogy leaves you as empty-handed as a tree in winter, and the best comparisons you can think of are about as exciting as broccoli, a dictionary of similes can help. All you need is some inspiration to remind you that analogies are as abundant as salt in the sea, and without them the English language would be as bland as hominy grits.

DICTIONARY OF LAST WORDS: Looking for a good kicker for that last will and testament? Allow us to recommend a list of notable figures who met their final deadline in quotable style. As Groucho Marx aptly put it, “This is no way to live!” Truly a subject on which there’s always more to be said.

SLANG DICTIONARIES: Whenever you’re in the mubblefubbles (low spirits), do what we do. Get out of your nerd box (study cubicle) and peruse one of our dictionaries of slang. Soon you’ll be grinning like a long-tailed beggar (a cat) and feel like everything is lovely and the goose hangs high (everything’s great). Forget Urban Dictionary. Historical slang dictionaries aren’t online, and that’s where you find the best flub-dub-and-guff (rhetorical embellishments).

DICTIONARY OF ONE-LETTER WORDS: Of the twenty-six letters in our alphabet, one of the most versatile is X. It has more than seventy different definitions. X marks the spot on a pirate’s map. It’s an incorrect answer on a test, a power of magnification, a female chromosome, and a kiss at the end of a love letter. The dictionary of one-letter words reminds us that even the smallest words in the English language carry a large range of meanings.

DICTIONARY OF OLD TRADES, TITLES, AND OCCUPATIONS: What exactly is a buddle boy, and what does one do? When was the last time you saw a claque or a dobber on the job? And who even knows what a hokey pokey man or rogue spotter is? History is full of bygone vocations and specializations. When you need to know more about them, it’s this dictionary’s job to inform you.