Disclaimer: I put affiliate links in this article. If you click on the link and buy the dictionary, Amazon rewards me with pennies. To be clear, I didn’t become a Latin teacher for the cashflow. Many of the options I’ll examine are free. If you do click through and buy a paper dictionary, thanks for contributing my family’s book collection! Anyway, you’re here because you want to know the best tool for looking up Latin words. Read on!
Best Latin Dictionary for Students
In the Classroom
“What dictionary should my Latin student be using?”
I receive this question a lot, and the answer really depends on a number of factors. If you’re a teacher and, like me, there are no devices in your classroom, then a classroom set of dictionaries promotes acute dictionary skills for all levels of Latin. Most people will rely on the glossary in the back of their textbook which will suffice 95% of the time. Early on, it’s also faster because the vocabulary is concisely adapted to the texts the students are reading. If you’re like most teachers in the US and there are devices in your classroom, it may be worth it to examine the Latin Dictionary Apps (see below).
I still find it useful to have a paper dictionary because split-screen apps and switching between apps is still annoying, so the paper dictionary often turns out to be faster than the digital. Plus, I don’t get as easily distracted.
One other advantage to owning your own paper dictionary is that you can track your vocabulary growth. Mark the word with a pencil each time you have to look it up, and you can embarrass yourself into remembering the word when you notice you’ve looked it up nine times. I have a friend who did this; I was never disciplined enough myself to have a pencil or pen at the ready when looking up a word.
In the Homeschool
For those who homeschool, the answer depends on how many students will be studying Latin at a time and for how long. Hardcover dictionaries are best because they’ll last. But going beyond the standard “student” size is only advisable if your child decides to major in Classics or Biblical Languages. So, if you’ve heard about the Middle-Lidell or the Great Scott or any of the other fond nicknames Classicists have for the larger dictionaries, don’t worry about having to drop $50-100 on a dictionary (see below). If you have more than one student studying Latin, you’ll burn through quite a few paperbacks before your family is done studying Latin. I apologize to those who are sensitive to book-burning. I do think so many paperbacks are so cheaply printed nowadays that some of them really do only serve as fuel after a few years.
My advice is to invest in one or two good ones, noting the advantages and drawbacks I mention below. You can and should take full advantage of the many free online options, detailed even further below.
How to Choose a Paper Dictionary
American vs. British Declensions
Best Online Latin Dictionary
Online dictionaries can do a lot. As a matter of fact, I should create a separate post for Logeion because it is so powerful. Because of its power, the interface can overwhelm the beginner. Front and center, there are at least four tabs for choosing which dictionary you want to see a definition from. The left panel, headed with “Nearby”, shows the alphabetical list of the words neighboring the one you looked up. On the right, you see all the information about what kinds of phrases this word shows up in (Collocations), how this word has been used by Classical authors (Frequency), and the common introductory works that require their students to learn this word in vocabulary (Textbooks).
I’ve learned so much from using this dictionary consistently for the past few years. I’ve also wandered down many a dark forest path and forgotten the text I was originally reading. All the expensive dictionaries with nicknames are included in this online dictionary.
Even better, this dictionary can search Latin or Greek (and you don’t even have to change your keyboard!). It’s got the same robust tools for Greek as it does for Latin, and you may quickly drown in all the information it has to throw at you. Nonetheless, a good lesson can be taught from this interface. Just check out the screenshot below from looking up the word grammaticus:
Another one with a slightly less overwhelming interface is here. It’s really four dictionaries, but you can toggle some of them on and off. This allows the dictionary to grow with you. This also makes $100’s of dollars of paper resources available to you for free! This website gives away so much awesome Latin content for free. I have no affiliation with these people, but if I ever attend a spoken-Latin conference in Europe again, I think it’s highly likely that I’ll run into them.
Anyway, the Lewis and Short checkbox explains itself (and is also available in Logeion), but the other three are where the gold is. The best English to Latin dictionary is available as an option here. It gives me nine entries for the word “teacher” and then ends with a series of common phrases from the Classical authors. I can’t screenshot this dictionary because I don’t have permission to do so, but check it out at this link. It’s just too cool, and so useful! I know, I know. I’m getting excited about dictionaries… why do you think I teach this again?
And of course, as Wikipedia continues to be the top search result in so many Google queries, its younger sibling, Wiktionary, is no different. Wiktionary has two advantages for the beginning student. First, it will decline nouns and conjugate verbs right on the page for most verbs. The advantage Wiktionary has over Googling “how to decline tempus” is that Wiktionary is crowd-sourced and the anonymous—but persnickety—Latinists correct any errors they see. This level of error-checking does not hold true with whatever Latin-themed corner Google may have brought you to when you searched “conjugation of volō” (of which there are two, anyway, and Google doesn’t know the difference). Wiktionary’s second benefit for the beginner includes an accurate pronunciation—at least of the reconstructed Classical pronunciation—recorded by a real person, not computer-generated!
The caveat with Wiktionary is that it will look up the word in whatever languages it exists in. While this won’t lead you too far astray most of the time, you should double-check that you’re looking up a Latin word, and not an Italian, Spanish, or Esperanto one. See the screen-shots below.
Old School – William Whitaker’s Words
When I began studying Latin, we used only paper dictionaries (I feel old). When I entered college and had my own laptop, though, I found that one of the early innovators of the internet actually built not just a computerized dictionary, but a tool to help rising Latin students parse their nouns and verbs. Now, this tool is last on the list because it can very easily become a crutch rather than an aid. Our tools should increase our leverage or make us stronger, but an intellectual tool should never replace thinking.
William Whitaker’s Words is still available online, hosted by Notre Dame, and if you stumble upon an unrecognizable verb form—consolabimini or laetāre— it will give you the basic definition and give all the possible grammatical forms this word takes.
Crutch or Aid
Whitaker’s Words can prevent a Latin student from building a basic dictionary skill: seeing the root form of the noun or verb inside of its parsed form. Thus, this can sometimes replace thinking rather than just aiding it. While it isn’t as lazy—or as inaccurate—as using Google Translate, my students who rely on it too heavily produce robotic translations. Even worse, they don’t seem to be learning so much as moving information from one medium into another. Nonetheless, it can be a helpful tool, so I link it here. There’s a version hosted as a single-page app, but I don’t know who is hosting it or how long it’ll be around, so I post it here and you all can tell me in the comments when the link breaks.
Best Latin Dictionary App
iPhones and iPads
Android as a platform feels a bit more like the Wild West than iOS. So it’s often a lot harder to find a great app that will last for years on these platforms. I only switched to Android phones a few years ago (they’re seriously SO. MUCH. CHEAPER.). But I just don’t use a Latin dictionary on my phone often enough to warrant having one there permanently.
That said, the best app seems to be a version of Whitaker’s Words ported to Android. One comforting thing about this is that we know the code it’s based on is time-tested. So, the definitions and grammatical information are accurate. It also doesn’t seem to be published by some paper dictionary publisher trying to make as much money while spending as little as possible, which is how the Collins dictionary app feels to me. Many of the reviewers in the Google Play Store agree with me.
Ultimately, I no longer see the utility of having a dedicated app. Instead, I just put a shortcut to Logeion on my home screen. But, if you seek an app, my recommendation seems to be the best. Please sound off in the comments if you’ve found something better.
Addendum for a Latin Grammar
Once our students have studied Latin for two or three years, they should acquire—and regularly consult—a Latin grammar. Getting a bigger dictionary—especially when so many gigantic dictionaries are available for free online—is a waste of money whereas a $30 grammar is the better investment.
Why Buy a Latin Grammar?
A Latin grammar, like Allen & Greenough or Gildersleeve’s, works as a reference tool for translation to ensure accuracy. It’s similar to the reference you use in English when you want to know lie vs lay (again!), or the difference between take and bring. It’s also available online, but Googling will usuallly lead you astray or not give you much.
Yes, you’ve figured out that this sentence has two ablatives, or is it an ablative and a dative? Wait, wasn’t there a double-dative construction that you once remember hearing about in the distant past of your Latin III class? How does it work again?
Latin Grammars also contain robust prosody sections; that is, they help you tackle the Roman poets, whether they’re writing in iambic trimeter, dactylic hexameter, or elegiac couplets.
Finally, grammars also contain essential help in English to Latin composition, whether prose of poetry. No dictionary or textbook will give much aid in this respect. While most textbooks require students to compose Latin from English sentences from the beginning, this has the feeling of riding with training-wheels at the beginning. All that’s required of the student is to rearrange a few key phrases from that chapter, moving what they brought from Latin to English back into Latin again.
Once the training wheels are off, though, you now need to express an indirect command in a sentence. How do indirect commands differ from indirect statements? (answer: indirect commands takes ut + subjunctive while indirect statement is accusative + infinitive). So, if you enroll in a Latin composition course, or work through a book like Bradley’s Arnold or Exercises in Prose Composition, then a grammar becomes an indispensable tool. You’re afraid that something bad will happen. Do you introduce the clause of what you’re afraid of with ut or ne? (answer: ut if you don’t want it to happen, ne if you’re afraid it already has or will).
The only one I’m familiar enough with to recommend is Allen & Greenough, which is hosted for free by Dickinson College here. This tool is best used in the hand and marked up. Feel free to use book-darts, for those of you who won’t sin by marking the pages of your books.
So, you can grab a paper copy of it here. Try to get the version that has been more recently edited by Tufts professor Anne Mahoney. There’s a Dover thrift version, but it’ll fall apart on you in no time and if you don’t want to buy the physical book, just use the digital links above. The other versions will likely be low-quality reprints of versions that have fallen into the public domain. Remember, this only becomes a useful tool when you’ve gotten beyond the level of high-school Latin. Obviously, some home-school students do get to this level before college, but few of the students I teach get much use out of a grammar unless the teacher models for them how to use it.
I hope you found this advice helpful and easy to navigate. Those who work in a craft like carpentry or coding know that inadequate tools will often limit the quality of our work. A Latin student doesn’t need a big toolbox but should select his tools carefully and use them consistently. Let me know in the comments if there is anything I overlooked. Best of luck in your Latin studies!
The more the mind takes in, the more it expands. —Seneca Epistle 108
Quō plus recipit animus, hoc se magis laxat. —Seneca, Epistula CVIII