Reverse dictionary

I don’t know why I’ve not written about reverse dictionaries before. The subject sprung to mind recently during the weekly Twitter #writingchat — which turned out to be about gifts for writers. Trust me, a reverse dictionary would make a great gift for any writer — but one should be on your own bookshelf too.

Few seem to have a reverse dictionary, and, as I found out during the chat, some haven’t even heard of them. Browsing on Amazon, it seems they aren’t published any more (none that I can find after 2002), so perhaps they’re out of vogue, or just stopped selling, which seems a shame.

Dictionaries tell you the meaning of a word you know, while reverse dictionaries help you find words you know, but which you have either forgotten, or which will not leave the tip of your tongue. They also guide you to words which might serve you well for writing on particular subjects. They do help with synonyms, but a reverse dictionary is far more than just a thesaurus. Browsing them is fun; they boost your word power. They teach you words you didn’t know you didn’t know.

Mine is this striking pink, orange and red Reader’s Digest Reverse Dictionary from 1989 – which looks to be the same as this one, in terms of content if not cover, but I can’t be certain, and which may have been updated almost a decade later as this Illustrated Reverse Dictionary, but again I’m unsure.

I first found my brightly coloured breezeblock of a book (it weighs 2kg) at a charity shop years ago, and due to its clashing colour combo is easy to spot at jumble sales and anywhere there are second hand books for sale. I have never left a copy I’ve spotted on the shelf, having given a few to friends and my sister (a translator) over the years. There are lists, there are labelled diagrams, there are words and words and more words.

Reverse dictionaries are surely due a renaissance …

The simple two-page intro to mine explains the ‘several angles of attack’ you can use to find the word that eludes you. To find the forgettable word ‘caryatid’ – the female sculpture serving as a column to support a roof in ancient Greece, you could look up ‘column’, ‘woman’ or ‘sculpture’ – and see it listed.

As the editors say, “most target words can be approached from several directions … The linguistic side of the human mind works by lateral thinking as well as straight-line logical thinking” … meaning if you’re scratching your head for a word which is often partnered with a word you do remember, you can look up that one instead. So try ‘butter’ to find ‘rancid’, or ‘job’ to find ‘sedentary’. Looking up the opposite of a word can be fruitful – see ‘serious’ and you’ll find ‘levity’.

This is merely scratching the surface of the delights reverse dictionaries have to offer. There are entertaining words and fanciful words, and there are prefixes and suffixes galore so you can have fun inventing your own words. Look up ‘mistake’ (right) and you find ‘lapsus linguae’ – Latin for ‘slip of the tongue’ – which is my new favourite discovery …

Ultimately, I’d say it’s a book for word nerds.

Unless they’re called something else these days, the most recently released reverse dictionary I can see is The Oxford Reverse Dictionary – for which Amazon offers a “Look Inside” – but I have to say it doesn’t look a patch on my Reader’s Digest version. Maybe we should petition the RD to update and reprint? Now that’s an idea …

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