The Sunday I’ll admit it: when I encounter an unfamiliar word while reading, I’m much more likely to guess at its meaning based on context than take the time to look it up in the dictionary. I’ve always liked the idea of learning new words while reading, though, so a few years ago I bought myself a pocket dictionary and kept it by my reading chair. The rule I made for myself was if I couldn’t define a word I came across, I would look it up. Needless to say, that didn’t last long! Sometimes the dictionary wasn’t with me, or I was feeling lazy, or I was too caught up in the story to even notice I’d glossed over a word.

Dictionary Page
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When I got my Sony Reader, looking up words got easier. I can just double-tap the word in question and its definition pops up at the bottom of my screen. Cool! I’ve only been able to muster two complains: First, that some words aren’t in the dictionary my Reader uses, and second, that there’s no way to keep a list of favorite new words. There’s also the problem of print books, which (as of yet?) do not offer similar functionality. Enter: the app on my Android phone. Not only has it had every word I’ve looked up so far, but I can add words to a favorites list in the app. And I’m much more likely to have my phone nearby than a dictionary. The dictionary app has made a convert out of me. I really enjoy looking up new words as well as words I’m not quite clear about when I can do it quickly and have the option to save them. I’ve come across some gems so far:

hugger-mugger: – noun 1. disorder or confusion; muddle. 2. secrecy; reticence. – adjective 3. secret or clandestine. 4. disorderly or confused. – verb (used with object) 5. to keep secret or concealed; hush up. – verb (used without object) 6. to act secretly.

trice noun 1. a very short time; an instant; in a trice.

recrudescence noun 1. breaking out afresh or into renewed activity; revival or reappearance in active existence.

atrabilious adjective 1. gloomy; morose; melancholy; morbid. 2. irritable; bad-tempered; splenetic.

scarperverb (used without object) 1. to flee or depart suddenly, esp. without having paid one’s bills

And so many more! So, my question to you: Do you read with a dictionary? Why or why not? What favorite words have you encountered through reading?

Join the Conversation


  1. i put a dictionary app on my phone, too, but it has to be a pretty obscure word for me to bother. I never like to interrupt the flow of the book to look something up.

    1. It’s hard for me to remember sometimes, especially if I’m only looking up a word or two a book. But, it’s more likely I’ll use the app than an actual dictionary, so that’s a plus!

  2. I love the sound of “atrabilious.” I don’t usually look words up either, but when I’m reading on my kindle I do. I started keeping a notebook to write down definitions, but that didn’t last long – it’s been months since I’ve looked at it. I like to guess what a word means, based on context, but a lot of the “definitions” I’ve come up with turn out to be so far off when I DO look them up that I think I should my dictionary more often.

    1. I know, me too! I just wish I could remember all those cool words for use in conversation later. I had high hopes of a definition notebook but very quickly abandoned it. Though it would be fun to keep track of guessed “definitions” paired with actual ones!

  3. I never used to look things up while reading because it was too much of a time waste, but I LOVE the dictionary app on my phone and use it constantly!! Far more than I ever did a traditional dictionary.

    1. That’s why I love the dictionary app — it’s so much faster than a traditional dictionary!

    1. I tried that, but I don’t have enough discipline to make it work. I forget (or “forget”) to look up noted words, plus having the context of the book helps me remember the definitions better. I’m impressed you follow through with the looking up!

  4. I still swear by my chunky, paper and binding books but I do dictionary. Lately, I’ve started not only looking up unfamiliar words but also logging them in a handy little notebook with the definition and the title of the book I find it in (I previously used it only for capturing quotes I especially enjoyed). I know this probably sounds obsessive but it’s fun to look back at past gems like “virago” – a noisy, domineering woman or “espieglerie” – the quality or state of being roguish or frolicsome!

    1. I love my paper books, too. I probably read five (at least) for every one I read electronically. That’s so good of you to keep track of definitions! I do write out quotes, but I’ve never been able to keep up with the definitions. I agree it would be fun to look back, though. Espieglerie…what an amazing word!

  5. I always intend to look up words that I don’t know, but when it comes to actually doing it, I pretty much fail. I hate interrupting the flow of reading to look up one word which has a meaning that probably should have just been obvious from the context anyway, and whenever I write them down intending to look them up later, I forget.

    Shortly, however, I will have a smart phone and the app sounds like it will solve at least some of my word knowledge problems!

    1. I hear you! That’s why I love the dictionary app. I hope you find it as useful as I do!

  6. I used to, but when I began reading there were a lot of words and stop-start reading got a bit silly. So now I keep a note of all the words and just keep reading unless the definition seems integral to my understanding of the book. My plan was to learn words after I’d listed ten or so, but I never did so my list is very long.

  7. I never look up words when I’m reading, I definitely am much more about figuring it out from context clues. If I absolutely have no idea what the word means and I need it to comprehend the sentence, that’s when I’ll bother looking it up in the dictionary. Mostly I’m just lazy.

    1. Haha, no, figuring out from context is good, and that’s what I often end up doing, despite my best intentions. When I do that, though, the words never stick in my memory and I end up doing the same thing the next time I encounter the word!

  8. I look up words all the time when I read on my Kindle. That is one of my favorite things about it. It’s hard to read with a dictionary, it slows things down. I don’t use apps b/c i don’t have a smart phone

  9. Hugger-mugger is definitely my new favorite word. I love how many definitions it has, too; hugger-mugger appears to be very complicated. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    1. Isn’t it excellent? And it can be many parts of speech, too. An all-purpose sort of word.

  10. Love this post! Do exactly the same and enjoy collecting the odd assortment of words as you have done so well here. Also improves my Scrabble game!

    1. Ooh, had not thought of the benefits for Scrabble playing! That’s an extra incentive to actually learn the words I look up!

  11. I wish I would do this! I’ve never really thought about it, and like you, I just guess at the meaning due to context. Perhaps I’ll go out an purchase a dictionary today.

    1. Best of luck if you go the dictionary route! There’s something satisfying about really knowing what a new word means instead of just guessing, especially if it turns out to be an extra cool word that you can then use in your everyday conversations ๐Ÿ™‚

  12. For the most part, I definitely rely on context more often than a dictionary. However, for certain titles having my large desktop OED (I don’t have an e-reader) by my side adds an extra layer to the reading. This was the case with David Levithan’s The Lover’s Dictionary. Looking up and seeing the multiple meanings of certain words helped to make the story that much deeper.

    1. Oh, yes, I bet it would! I’d really like to read The Lover’s Dictionary, and when I do, I’ll be sure to have my dictionary handy.

  13. I never read with a dictionary on hand and pretty much don’t look up words unless I am reading on my e-reader! It’s one of the reasons I actually really enjoy reading on my e-reader… I think it makes me a better reader as it helps me expand my vocabulary.

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