Words fascinate me. Whilst proofreading or editing, it’s not unusual for me to be distracted by a word I’ve not come across before, a tricky spelling, or a word that seems to be used out of context. I then turn to the Internet or one of my trusty dictionaries, and often the minutes will tick by as I delve into the origin and correct meaning of the word. Friends sometimes treat me as a walking encyclopaedia of words – ‘dribs and drabs’ where does that phrase come from, I was asked the other day.
Seven useful resources
So, if words are your thing, I thought I’d share a few of the Internet resources I find particularly helpful:
My first port of call with any word-related query is always the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s more than just a free online dictionary [there’s a more extensive subscription version too]. There are lots of interesting facts and the fascinating OxfordWords Blog, plus there’s always a new online test, like this week’s spelling challenge that is guaranteed to distract. Some people aren’t keen on the OED, so a another great alternative is Collins Online.
Sometimes I get asked to proofread a piece of writing into American English. I’ve been doing this for a long time now and so I’m pretty familiar with all the usual spelling differences, but if I need to double-check anything I turn to the Merriam-Webster online.
For translating into a whole host of languages (I usually use it for French) I generally turn to the online WordReference site. There’s a great languages forum too, which claims to be the largest store of knowledge about the English language – if you’re brave you can always register and ask a question!
If you’re looking for an alternative word – a synonym – I find the OED is good. There is usually a list of synonyms under the definition of each entry. However, if you prefer a thesaurus there is a useful resource at Thesaurus.com, which also has a great online dictionary. One particular feature I like is the world map showing the location of the word’s origin for each dictionary entry.
Origin of words
If you are interested in the origin and history of words have a look at the Online Etymology Dictionary. Another fascinating site that investigates the meaning, history and usage of English words across the globe is World Wide Words. Given that this is built on just one person’s hobby it’s a mine of information and a great resource.
I hope that you find these resources useful. By the way, the answer to ‘dribs and drabs’ wasn’t as exciting as I’d hoped. This informal phrase means something occurring in small scattered or sporadic amounts, for example, ‘I wrote the essay in dribs and drabs. OED says that the phrase dates to the early nineteenth century and is related to, and a variant of, the word drip. The original meaning of the words drip and drib were ‘shoot an arrow short or wide of its target’. In contrast, World Wide Words does not refer to the arrow connection, but suggests that drib is an eighteenth century dialect variation of drip or drop, meaning a small amount. Both resources agree that the second part of the phrase ‘drab’ is what is known as a ‘reduplicated compound’ or echo of the first word, to make ‘a neat and bouncy phrase’ [World Wide Words, 2016].