Google Dictionary?

I’m not sure, maybe this is a common practice. But just in case it isn’t, I’d like to offer a tip to you happy web surfers out there, and an extra special tip to those of you studying Chinese.

Every one knows about Google now. “Google” is pretty much a verb in common usage already. I urge you to use the Google Toolbar if you don’t already. It’s so useful — I get annoyed now when I’m on someone else’s computer and I actually have to go to the Google site to use Google. I just use Google that much. Then there’s Google Images, which is your key to a vast lode of virtually untapped digital imagery ore. Sure, you can use those pictures for your own unscrupulous Photoshop purposes or whatever (I sure have)… But what people don’t realize is that Google Images is also a reference resource.

I’ll give an example. Suppose you want to know what a Pekinese looks like. You know it’s a kind of dog, but you want to know exactly what it looks like. If you looked it up in a dictionary, you’d get a nice (possibly vague) description, but what you really would want is a picture. An encyclopedia might provide that, but it might not, plus looking something up in an encyclopedia is a big pain in this modern age. All you have to do is pop “pekinese” into Google Images, and voila! you have a whole smattering of visual testimony, all provided unwittingly by people across the web.

But none of that is revolutionary. What I find Google especially useful for is checking up on Chinese words [sorry, you’ll need Chinese input capability for this]. There are a lot of Chinese words that are in common practice but have not made it into dictionaries. Proper nouns are not usually in dictionaries anyway. So what do you do in a case like that? Google them. Take a guess at the characters. If you’re wrong, you’ll know by the search results.

I’ll give an example. You want to search for information on Jay Chou in Chinese. You know his Chinese name is Zhou Jielun, but you’re not sure which “lun” the last character is. Google all your guesses. Chances are, the one which turns up the greatest number of results is the right one. In the case of Zhou Jielun, it clearly is.

This works great for famous people’s names, place names, new slang, etc., and it sure beats any traditional dictionary method I know. The only problem is that you’re choosing the “correct” answer by following the herd. When the herd is 1.3 billion strong, though, in the name of convenience… why not?


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Hi there, you seem to know a bit about google. I love google too. Do you know how i can get a eord added into google’s dictionary? So that it doesnt say “Did you mean:…” at the top of the page. I have a HUGE website, thats called and maxxd isnt in the google dictionary, but i want it to be int here!! help!

  2. The exclamation you’re looking for is “voila”, not viola, which is a 中提琴 😉

  3. Charles Laughlin Says: May 9, 2012 at 11:58 am

    There is more to this that I think you should add. Apart from guessing the characters, you can set search results to Chinese (in “Advanced Search,” and type in the pinyin or even an English word or name that you want to find the Chinese equivalent for. You’ll get only hits for pages whose code is set to Chinese but have the Latin string you’re searching for in them; they usually have the Chinese equivalent nearby. Then you can check the results by re-Googling as you describe.

  4. I find Wikipedia just as, if not more useful. Go to the English one and search for Jay Chou. Voila! It gives the Chinese (Trad and Simple characters and Pinyin). Much quicker than experimenting in Google with variations on possible characters.

    Where an article does not directly give the Chinese, very often the same topic will be available in Chinese by clicking on 中文 at the bottom of the leftmost column. For example, if I want to know the Chinese for Apple Inc, I search for that in the English version and alakazoom! The Chinese is under the 中文 link.

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