[Lexicog] Reverse Dictionary

John Roberts dr_john_roberts at SIL.ORG
Fri Jan 20 16:28:45 UTC 2006

Hi Elif,

It depends on what you mean by "reverse dictionary". Many different kinds of 
dictionary are called "reverse dictionaries".

For example bilingual language dictionaries, e.g. English-Swahili, are 
sometimes called reverse dictionaries.

The index in bilingual dictionaries can also be called a reverse dictionary.

Then there are the bilingual dictionaries that go from a technical language 
to an everyday language. They are often called reverse dictionaries. I give 
some examples next.

The Medical Word Finder: A Reverse Medical Dictionary  Betty Hamilton 
(Editor), Barbara Guidos (Editor) (1987)
[The text supplements a regular medical dictionary by translating 
layperson's language into medical terms. Entries appear here alphabetically 
by single words and extended phrases. The dictionary also contains a list of 
commonly used prefixes and suffixes of medical etymology.]

Music Abbreviations: A Reverse Dictionary  Donald L. Hixon (2005)
[This volume is a dictionary and reverse dictionary of music abbreviations, 
acronyms, and initialisms for musical terms, monograph and serial titles, 
academic degrees, and much more. While the focus of the dictionary is on 
classical music terms, entries representing jazz and folk music have also 
been included. The first half of the volume is arranged alphabetically by 
the abbreviation, while the second part is arranged alphabetically by the 
full form of the entry, followed by the abbreviation. This resource is 
intended to eliminate much of the need to cull definitions from dozens of 
separate music and general dictionaries and encyclopedias.]

Reverse Symbolism Dictionary: Symbols Listed by Subject  Steven Olderr 
[This is a companion to the hugely successful Symbolism: A Comprehensive 
Dictionary. The earlier dictionary was arranged by symbol and told what the 
meanings were. The present work goes the other way (but it is not simply a 
refiguring of the data). It presents ideas, situations or objects (ancient 
to modern), and gives the appropriate symbols (allusions, associations, 
attributes, or emblems). Some examples: one of the symbols for "hell" is 
descending stairs; an attribute of Saint Benedict is a raven; joy after 
sorrow is symbolized by the gemstone, amber. Literary, artistic, religious, 
heraldic, numerological, folkloric, occult, psychological, and biblical 
usages are included.]

Then there are reverse alphabet dictionaries:

Reverse English Dictionary: Based on Phonological and Morphological 
Principles  (2002)
[Rather than presenting a reverse list of words in endless sequence and 
strictly alphabetical order, this English dictionary considers the structure 
and formation of words, grouping them together in sections and subdivisions. 
This way of looking at words from behind and comparing similar word endings 
reveals new and unaccustomed aspects of the structure of words and their 
formation, illustrating the enormous variety of the English language.]

"It alphabetizes words beginning with the last letter."

Then there are the "Sounds like dictionaries". Here you go from the phonetic 
sounds of a word to its written form.

Not strictly a reverse dictionary, but its regular search allows several 
options such as "sounds like" and broad matching. Its "advanced search" 
allows for inputting of phrases, and also features hyperlinked synonyms.

Lets you look up words or a sentence, or a representation of the 
pronunciation of a word you're not sure how to spell.

Finally, there are what are probably best understood as reverse dictionaries 
and these are "concept dictionaries". Typically concepts or meanings are 
listed alphabetically and words are given in each entry that relate to that 
concept. I give some examples of printed dictionaries of this type and also 
those available on the internet.

Reverse Dictionary (1983) Theodore M. Bernstein (Editor), Jane Wagner 
In this unusual dictionary, it is the meanings that are arranged 
alphabetically, to lead you to all those words you can't quite remember at 
the time.

Reader's Digest (1989) Reverse Dictionary

Reader's Digest (1997) Illustrated Reverse Dictionary

Oxford Reverse Dictionary (2002)
Has entries of key concept words with words in the entry related to that 

Longman Language Activator (1993)
is like this too

Is the same idea. Describe a concept and the dictionary will find the 
appropriate word for that concept.

"...lets you describe a concept and get back a list of words and phrases 
related to that concept. Your description can be a few words, a sentence, a 
question, or even just a single word."

"It directs you from a mere idea to its precise wording!"

This tool includes reverse dictionary functionality with its regular 

Also not strictly a reverse dictionary, but this tool lets you type in 
concepts or ideas and then it returns related words and synonyms.

There are probably other kinds of dictionaries that are also called a 
"reverse dictionary", but I think you get the idea of the possibilities.

I hope this is helpful to you.

John Roberts


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