5 Resources That Help You Answer “What’s That Word?”

By Mark Nichol

You’re trying to think of a word, but it stubbornly refuses to materialize. Oh, well. You’ll think of it—when it’s too late. What do you do in the meantime? Plenty of books and websites are available to bridge the gap between your brain and the word it seeks. (Bowing to the convenience of the Web, however, few new word-finder books have been published in some time.) Here are summaries of five of these resources.

1. Bernstein’s Reverse Dictionary

This book by language maven Theodore M. Bernstein has not been updated in nearly forty years, so unless you find a copy at a used-book store (online or on a street), you’ll have to search the Web for a site that enables you to download it for free. (Registration may be required.) But you might find the effort worthwhile. Bernstein’s book, which was revised and expanded in 1988 by David Grambs, editor of the second edition of the Random House Unabridged Dictionary three decades after the reverse dictionary’s original publication, is alphabetized by the keyword of a definition for the word you’re looking for—and keywords are cross referenced.

For example, what’s that word for when you elbow somebody in a crowd? Look up “crowd roughly,” push, “shake up,” or shove, and you’ll find that word or phrase followed by its fellow definitions, plus jostle in boldface type. There’s also a reverse index, listing what are called the target words and the numbers of the pages on which you’ll find those entries.

2. OneLook Reverse Dictionary

This online tool helps you find a word for which you know the definition but not the term itself, generate a list of related terms or concepts, or find the answers to simple factual questions. You can also find words by typing in the letters you know it contains.

The parent website’s home page has a dictionary search that lets you look up words and phrases starting or ending with one or more letters, words that start or end with certain letters and have a specific number of letters between them, or phrases that include a certain word. In addition, you can look up a word that starts with certain letters and is related in meaning to another specific word or is a certain part of speech.

3. Random House Webster’s Word Menu

This book, like Bernstein’s Reverse Dictionary, may be available only as a used book or a download, but it’s an excellent resource for those who like to flip pages rather than tap a keyboard to find what they’re looking for. Much like the original Roget’s Thesaurus, it is organized alphabetically by concept rather than discrete words.

For example, to find that word for a warm, dry wind that blows down a mountainside, go to Part One—Nature, then to Chapter 3—Earth, where you’ll find the section titled “Weather and Natural Phenomena.” Under the subsection “Winds,” skim the one and a half columns of terms associated with winds, followed by brief definitions, until you come to “foehn: warm, dry wind blowing down mountainside.” There are more than 850 pages of entries, each with dozens of terms categorized to an intricate level of detail.

4. Sisson’s Word and Expression Locator

This resource is also out of print, but you can find it online. Its approach is to alphabetically list common words with entries that include synonyms or related words. For example, under courage, you’ll find a list of ten adjectives (starting with audacious) and thirteen nouns (beginning with audacity), plus an associated verb (muster, often paired with the target word in the phrase “muster courage”).

But that’s only the starting point. Some entries also list combining forms; for example, under facial, you’ll find -hedron, the suffix for terms for multifaceted geometrical shapes (such as an octahedron). Others list fields of study associated with the term: Under old, you’ll find geriatrics, gerontology, and nostology. And what are words associated, for example, with suffer? Try calvary, Gethsemane, hell, inferno, or purgatory (though the first choice should be capitalized, and purgatory is capitalized in religious contexts, as hell sometimes is). And under assist, in addition to lists of adjectives, nouns, and verbs, a list of synonyms for assistant is offered. An index features lists of words alphabetically organized within categories such as “Actions and Events” and “People and the Social World.”

5. Tip of My Tongue

This basic word finder features multiple routes to success: four areas with three fields each to enter what you do know about an evasive word. The first area lets you type in one or more letters: the start of a word, a letter (or a sequence of them) that you know is in there somewhere, or the end of the word.

The second section enables you to type in a scrambled word or any letters you know the word contains or doesn’t contain, and a third has fields in which you can enter synonyms to narrow your search. The final area lets you refine your search to words of a minimum or maximum length or words that sound like another word. Filling in at least one field will result in a list of words and their meanings that meet your criteria. (Also available on Apple’s App Store.)

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2 Responses to “5 Resources That Help You Answer “What’s That Word?””

  • Mike Szczepanik

    Useful article. A question: Under Tip of My Tongue, first paragraph, 2nd sentence: the word “someone” doesn’t make sense in the context. Should it be “somewhere” instead?

  • Mark Nichol

    The error has been corrected. Thanks!

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