Merriam-Webster is Your New Pocket Dictionary

Dictionaries used to be those large books you were too scared to carry with you for fear of embarrassment or being titled a “nerd.” They were very useful as a resource, but even pocket dictionaries looked ridiculous when you had them with you. Nowadays, things have gone digital. Books are available aplenty in your pocket at the size of a Game Boy Micro, and these, of course, include dictionaries.

Instead of using iBooks for reading a dictionary though, it’s better to use a standalone app like the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Thesaurus. Recently updated to support the iPhone 5, this app has been the pinnacle of looking up words on an iPhone. Being a logophile myself, it’s a must-have. But with all those words in such a small app, is all as great as it sounds?

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Why Use It?

IOS has an integrated dictionary, so you’re probably wondering why you’d even want to use this at all. Well, if you plan to look up words that aren’t on the screen already, you have to type them in, select them and tap Define. The main problem is finding a place to type them, though Spotlight might be good; it’s rather surprising it doesn’t support looking up words. Then there’s Siri, but sometimes Wolfram Alpha can be off in its definitions.

M-W in all its glory.

M-W in all its glory.

For purposes of accuracy, a real dictionary — in this era, digital — is still valuable. This app also has a thesaurus, which iOS is without (though not for long, I’m sure). Since many students are using iPhones to quickly look things up, why not have a reliable app to do so? New definitions are added every few months and Merriam-Webster has been a very credible source in the past. Now, on to the app.

Searching with Text or Voice

Traditional dictionaries have no index, just reference points: the words are in alphabetical order. Computers, and in this case the iPhone, brought a different method of looking up words. All you have to do is search. Even that has been revolutionized in the past few years with prediction, spellcheck and voice input. Merriam-Webster supports traditional text searching, but also has voice search powered by Nuance’s Dragon.

Searching with text (left) and voice (right).

Searching with text (left) and voice (right).

To start searching, tap the text field at the top of the app and type in whatever you’d like to look up. Words starting with exactly what you’ve already typed in will show up; the app doesn’t support looking up words that contain what you’ve typed, sadly. You can tap any word to go to its definition, or change to the Thesaurus tab to view its synonyms and antonyms. There are also “near antonyms,” which are very similar to the opposite of the word.

Tap any word within the app’s definitions or thesaurus to look it up.

Voice search is not all that different from what you’d expect. To activate it, tap the blue microphone in the top right of the screen and say the word you want to look up. It’s surprisingly quick and accurate. I even tried it with some music playing on speakers half a meter away and it picked up my voice and the word perfectly. That’s astonishing since there were lyrics playing in the background. And as for speed, it takes half a second to bring up the definition — faster than Siri Dictation (it took eight seconds at best for the word “dumb”), which you can use if you tap the text field.

No Autocorrect or Suggestions

Merriam-Webster’s solution to looking up words is great and being able to tap any word makes it even better, but there’s still a problem. If I heard a word in conversation or on television, I typically go look it up right away. Sometimes that can be hard due to the way it was pronounced. I hoped this app would correct my spelling errors, but it doesn’t — it hates cacography, apparently. In light of that, I end up going to Safari and searching Google because it can usually pick up what I’m trying to spell.

A misspelled word.

A misspelled word.

Adding a sort of autocorrect or suggestion menu to the search function would be very helpful. More users would stay in the app rather than refer to outside sources for their information. Google can only do so much in terms of defining a word and oftentimes it’s a limited or overly-concise definition that leaves out the other meanings of the word.

Audio Pronunciation and More in the Definition

It’s often hard to read the International Phonetic Alphabet because all the accents make it look like a foreign language. Luckily, Merriam-Webster’s app has more than just that available. When you look up a word, you’ll see it broken down into syllables along with the IPA pronunciation of it and other information. To the right of the bold word itself, however, there’s a red speaker-like button that, when pressed, will play back a pronunciation of the word recorded by the Merriam-Webster staff. Now that’s useful.

A word (left) and the Favorites tab (right).

A word (left) and the Favorites tab (right).

Also on the definition page is a star. It sits right beside the audio pronunciation button. As you’d expect, it’ll add the word to your Favorites, which are available on the bottom menu of the app. You can manage these by going to that page, tapping Edit Favorites, selecting the words you’d like to remove and tapping Delete; you can also press Delete All to purge the holdings. Sadly, you can’t reorder them.

Some other information on the definition page includes the first use of the word (it used to be called “circa” until the latest update to the app), other forms of the word such as gerunds and past tenses (it’d be nice for these to be labeled so you know what each one is), and the type of word it is. Some words have multiple uses, from transitive verb to noun to adjective.

Thesaurus on the Flip Side

I gave a little information about the Thesaurus in the search section, but now I want to really get down to its functions. Instead of being strictly a thesaurus, this app’s function acts as a hybrid: there’s a short definition of each word followed by its synonyms, antonyms and related words. You can still favorite words, but there’s no voice pronunciation feature, other forms, syllable separation or other information on the word because it’s technically not a dictionary. (The app was originally just a dictionary by name, but included a thesaurus below each definition.)

Searching in the Thesaurus tab (left) and browsing an entry (right) in the Thesaurus.

Searching in the Thesaurus tab (left) and browsing an entry (right) in the Thesaurus.

Merriam-Webster’s aim with the related words section of a thesaurus entry is to help you learn about new words. It’s useful for learning and that alone, but I don’t recommend using it as a synonym alternative. Near antonyms are similar to this, but they are closer to the opposite of the entry. It’s best to look up the word before using it because it can technically mean something different than you think.

Learn Something with the Word of the Day

November 5th's word of the day.

November 5th’s word of the day.

The related words feature of the Thesaurus already taught you something, but there’s an even better way to learn with the Merriam-Webster word of the day. It’s been available on the dictionary’s Web site for a while now, but things haven’t been this portable. This feature gives you a new word each day with its definition, some usage and a bit of trivia. It’s good to see that Merriam-Webster wants to teach people new words and one thing that’d be great here is the word of the day archives.

Simply the Best

This review started praising the app and it’s going to end that way because Merriam-Webster’s ultraportable dictionary really is all of the words in the screenshot above, save for the slang ones. It’s very polished, they update it to often accommodate new hardware and software, and there are more words added all the time. Its user interface is also especially nice, even if the bottom navigation bar does resemble the original iOS design scheme.

Whether you want to quickly look up a word or do some research, this app will get you the most accurate results. After all, Merriam-Webster has been an established dictionary for many colleges and has much credibility. This app would get a perfect score, but the small lacking features are holding it back. Until next time then? Let us know how you like the app — there’s a free version with ads for you to try it out.


If you use a dictionary daily, Merriam-Webster's iPhone app is the best way to do it on the go. Type or say the word — it doesn't care. The definition is always accurate even with those little missing features.