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Apple Mac OS X tips and tweaks

Date: 27th October 2011     

Customise and use the Dictionary app

The Dictionary app is a useful tool in OS X and it has a variety of functions. It isn't just for looking up definitions of words and it is a thesaurus and a great encyclopedia too, thanks to its ability to display content from Wikipedia. However, if you are not an American, you may find that it is not set up correctly. This means that it will not produce the correct results for your region, such as color instead of colour, favorite and not favourite. Does upgrading to OS X Lion change the defaults in the Dictionary app? I'm sure it was set for British English in Snow Leopard, and now it's set to American English. On my Mac. Have you checked yours?

Even if you are US-based, there are still some Dictionary tweaks and uses that you might find beneficial. For example, instead of opening a browser, typing the URL for Wikipedia, entering a search and so on, just use Dictionary. It is a fast and easy way to use the online encyclopedia that you may find more convenient. The next time you need to look up something online, just try the Dictionary app.

Start the Dictionary app in the Applications folder and it says "Type a word to look up in..." It's the next bit that is important and it may say New Oxford American English even if you are not in the US. (It remembers your last search, so clear the search box to see the default setting.)

Take a look at the toolbar. This contains a list of the resources Dictionary has access to. The first item is All, but the second one is the default. When you enter a word or phrase in the search box, the result is shown from the second item in the toolbar. If you want to see results from the other resources, such as Wikipedia, you just click it. If you click the All button in the toolbar, then results are shown from all the resources, and here's the important bit, in the order in which they appear in the toolbar.

Is this order the most convenient for you? If it isn't, it is possible to rearrange the order into one that suits you better. So you could, if you wanted to, make Wikipedia results appear first in the All results and be the default for searches (by being second in the toolbar).


Click Dictionary, Preferences and you'll see a list of the reference sources. Click and drag each item into the order in which you want them to be used. For example, if you are UK-based then click and drag British Dictionary to the top of the list so its results appear first. However, if you want to see Wikipedia results first then drag Wikipedia to the top of the list. The Dictionary app is actually quite a good tool for browsing Wikipedia

There are tick boxes on the left to enable or disable resources and if you are US-based you might want to disable the British dictionary and thesaurus, but if you are UK-based then you may want to disable the American dictionary and thesaurus.


If you had the printed edition of a dictionary or thesaurus there would be a preface, introduction, key to pronunciations and abbreviations, and much more. You may not have realised it, but this information is also available in the Dictionary app too, and some of it is quite interesting to read.

To access it, clear the search box, click one of the resources (The New Oxford American Dictionary is a good one to try), and select Front/Back Matter on the Go menu. Scroll down a bit and you'll find links to some useful information. For example, click Timeline just below History of English and then maximise the app to zoom in on the content so you can read it.