Is there a dictionary (preferably on-line) that would offer usage frequency information for each possible meaning of a word or phrase? I mean more detailed than the usual marking of some meanings (like gay..jolly) as obsolete?

I found a related question on SE A dictionary based on word occurrence frequencies

My specific problem is this. I know that the expression "make something up", has, among others, these two meanings:

  1. "compensate for something lost, missed, or deficient."
  2. "invent a story, lie, or plan."

I intend to use it in the first meaning, but I worry that people might think I have the second meaning in mind. Is context the only hint they can rely on, or is one of the two meanings much more common than the other?

I am looking for an answer that would "teach me fishing". Tell how to solve issues like this in general. I think frequency dictionary is a best bet.

  • Note: I am aware I can sidestep my specific problem by saying "make up for something", which is certainly absolutely unambiguous. At least I think so.
    – user7610
    Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 21:32
  • 2
    In general, I don't think a frequency dictionary will help all that much, even if you find one. Suppose one meaning is 4 times as common - does that mean that it is 4 times as likely to be the intended definition? Only if the context allows.
    – Adam
    Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 22:21

2 Answers 2


Make "something" up is almost always the second definition. Make [something] up is the first.

I was late for work. I will make something up tomorrow.

Make up means invent. You are planning on inventing a lie. In this usage you might be making up something, a story, a lie, an excuse, a bunch of nonsense, etc. )

I was late for work. I will make hours up tomorrow.

Make up means compensate for. You will work extra. For this usage, you would say you are making up hours, time, missed work, credits, etc.

I was late for work. I will make up a pot of beans.

Here make up means prepare. Often used with food. In this case, you were supposed to bring donuts for the office Christmas party, but you didn't have time to stop and get them, so you will be cooking some beans.


Most dictionaries list entries generally by relative frequency. Although this does not give actual frequencies, if you compare two or three dictionaries and see that one meaning is consistently listed before others, then you could be reasonably confident that the meaning listed first is more common than the ones listed later.

That said, there are two good dictionaries I use frequently (one free, one paid) that give some indication of frequencies:

  • Linguee is a free bilingual dictionary with many language pairs. It is the best dictionary I know of (free or paid) for translating phrases in contexts, including idioms. Although its direct word translation entries are very brief (and not necessarily the best), one useful feature of relevance to your question is that it sometimes indicates "infrequent" or "rare" with some of its translations.

  • Antidote (rather expensive, with no free version) is primarily a grammar corrector, but it has an original dictionary built into it. One of its many excellent features is that it indicates relative frequencies of every word in the dictionary.

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