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?