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One Look Is All It Takes

For more than a decade, I’ve had the same tattered paperback Webster’s New World Dictionary sitting on my desk. This trusty volume has performed well, I guess. And there’s something comforting about smelling the pages, deciphering the pronunciation hieroglyphics, and occasionally seeing a lovely line drawing of a curlew (“a large, brownish wading bird with long legs”).

But lately the Web has been edging my beloved dictionary off the desktop — and ever more into the dustbin of once-useful tools.

The main culprit: a brilliant, free, open-source style online meta-dictionary called OneLook.

Bob Ware, a 60-something computer whiz in Englewood, Colorado, has assembled several hundred online dictionaries and given users a single entry point for searching the entire, giant collection.

Type in “curlew,” for instance, and OneLook will reveal ten different dictionaries — from Lexical FreeNet to Webster’s 1828 Dictionary to the Eugene Free Community Network’s English-Spanish Dictionary — that define the word. A curlew, you’ll learn, is shorebird, part of the grallic order, and larger than a partridge. The Spanish word for it is “zarapito.” (But you probably already knew that.)

What makes OneLook so valuable is also what makes it so charming. This monster-sized searchable dictionary exists only because of the dedicated work of one guy in Colorado — who has brought together word lovers and vocabulary specialists from around the world whose only compensation is the joy of helping people learn and the prestige of getting credit for it.

So don’t be a dronte. Take a look at OneLook.