Tap a Word in a Sentence Three Times and It's Yours

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Philtrum. Salubriousness. Thaumaturge. These are three of my favorite words, but they're not common ones. So you may be reaching for a dictionary right now.

But before your fingers close on that printed book and flick through its alphabetically indexed pages, consider this: There are many dictionary apps that could help you do the job more speedily. They may also have features that will teach you new words. And they might even be fun.

Dictionary.com Dictionary and Thesaurus is a free iOS and Android app that comes from one of the best-known dictionary Web sites. Unlike the Web site, the app has the advantage that many of its features work offline. This app's home page is colorful with icons and is topped by a search bar where you enter words you want to look up. As soon as you begin to type in this bar, the app begins to suggest words that may match, so you don't always have to type in the whole word. If you're unsure of a word's spelling, you can tap on the microphone icon and speak your word instead.

When you see the word you're looking for in the search list, a single tap takes you to its main dictionary entry. Here you'll find the usual definitions you'd get in a paper dictionary, including a guide to pronunciation, word origin description, various meanings and related word forms. You can hear the word spoken aloud by tapping on the loudspeaker icon, or add the word to a favorites list. The app also has a built-in thesaurus, which you can get to via a tab in the search bar. On the iPhone, the app can translate a word into several different languages.

It's functional as a dictionary, but the app also has entertaining extras. It can show you which words people are searching for most right now, for example, and even what people near you are searching for.

The app is visually cluttered, though, and some features, like voice recognition and pronunciation guides, work only online. I got the feeling I was being nagged to buy add-ons, like the ability to see example sentences. Also, the free version's on-screen ads can get annoying if you don't make a $2.99 in-app purchase to banish them.

The Android version has a slightly different interface of a simpler design than the iOS version. There is also an attractively designed free edition for Windows Phone, though it seems trickier to switch between the dictionary and the thesaurus in that one.

Merriam-Webster has released several dictionary apps with different functions to cater to certain users or devices. For example, some apps incorporate a thesaurus function alongside the main dictionary; others don't. The basic Merriam-Webster app is free for iOS and Android devices and is supported by on-screen ads. Its design is simpler than the Dictionary.com app's. The home page consists of a logo, a control bar at the bottom that provides access to the app's various functions and a prominent search bar at the top.

Like the Dictionary.com app, Merriam-Webster's version suggests word matches as you type in the search bar. It can also take voice input instead of typed text. When you tap on a word in the list of suggestions, the app shows the relevant dictionary entry, which is easy to read, with a clear layout and large text. The entry also uses the word in an example and offers a list of synonyms and antonyms. Tap on the red speaker icons to hear the word pronounced.

But the basic app's database is limited and it knows only two of my favorite three words. It's possible that the Collegiate edition would know all three: it costs a little less than $25 on iOS and Android to get more definitions as well as the ability to modify menus and a "pen reader" system for recognizing handwriting in many languages. A $3.99 Windows Phone edition of the Merriam-Webster app says it includes "all" the definitions from the Collegiate dictionary.

English Dictionary -- Offline, free on Android, is the simplest of the apps mentioned here but is still powerful. Its interface is basic: a search box at the top and space below for word definitions to appear. Tap icons to share words to other apps, flag words as favorites or perform other actions like viewing your search history. Dictionary entries are based on the Wiktionary database, which the makers say includes about 159,000 words. You can click on individual words on an entry page to navigate to that word, and the app will speak the word aloud for you. It's free and handy for looking up definitions. But it falls short if you're curious about how a word came into use.

As for "philtrum," it's that little vertical groove in your upper lip beneath your nose.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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