Online dictionaries inspire lazy learners

Words: Internet sites lead students to love language.

March 21, 2002|By Jennifer Hill | Jennifer Hill,COX NEWS SERVICE

If I lost a pound for every time I was asked "How do you spell ... " while one of the boys was doing his homework, I would be well on my way to accomplishing one of my New Year's resolutions.

It makes no difference that I have deliberately scattered dictionaries - big and small, college and student, and even a children's dictionary left from bygone years - near where homework is done. It's apparently not an instinctive response to open one and look up a word. That, it was patiently explained to me, takes too long.

While I still harbor hopes that use of the paper dictionary will rise in my house, a partial solution has been to pointedly remind the inquirer that there is dictionary software on the computer.

In addition, loads of help with spelling, grammar and usage, as well as foreign language dictionaries, are available on the Internet.

At www.dictionary.com, there's a cornucopia of reference material, including a "word of the day" you can see on the site or have e-mailed to you. Sunday's word was celerity, and one of the usages cited was most apropos for its presentation:

"Furthermore, as is well known, computer technology grows obsolete with amazing celerity." That was written by Alan S. Blinder and Richard E. Quandt in "The Computer and the Economy," published in The Atlantic, December 1997.

Fact Monster (www.factmonster.com), part of the Learning Network, is a homework help site aimed at a younger audience. It's packed with interesting facts about language, including a dictionary, almanac, encyclopedia and atlas. It also has links for "Word Lovers," such as a daily word quiz and an analogy quiz.

Under a section called Speaking of Language, several features are offered, including one called "Latin Words and Phrases" that features familiar terms such as carpe diem, ad nauseum, cum laude, et cetera and per se. In a neat reversal, it also offers the Latin for slang such as "no way" (nolo modo) and "what's happening" (quid fit). It probably won't start any trends, but who knows?

Under Idioms and Proverbs, your student can learn the derivations of such phrases as "raining cats and dogs": "In Norse mythology, the dog is associated with wind and the cat with storms. This expression means it's raining very heavily."

Another example is "jumping on the bandwagon": "Long ago, bands on the platforms of traveling wagons played music to announce a parade or political speech. To show their support, people would often jump onto the platform and join the band. Today, this idiom usually refers to someone who hopes to benefit from supporting another person's idea."

You can also find examples of palindromes, which are words, phrases or sentences that read the same forward and backward.

I had a good time roaming the site and checking the various features. It's content-rich and quirky, and it will appeal to language lovers and resisters alike.

After all, even the most jaded among us might be amused to find out that hot dog string is called linker twine, or that such a thing has a name. That tidbit is one of the decidedly quirky facts under the section called Whatchamacallits, or Names for the Little Things.

One annoying aspect of this site is that ads pop up frequently.

The section for teens on About.com has a homework center that is aimed at older students and features language aids, including several dictionaries recommended by the site guide. One is the All-words site (www.allwords.com), where you can type in the beginning of a word and get back links to words beginning with those letters. I typed in "pseu" and got three results: pseud, pseudo and pseudonym, with definitions and audio pronunciations, from the AND Concise Dictionary.

I got 74 words from Webster's, beginning with pseudaethesia. Now if I can just convince the boys that reading dictionaries is a form of entertainment.

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