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I have come across many kinds of English dictionaries like Oxford, Cambridge, Collins and other similar ones which are commonly used. Suppose I wanted to look for a word, apparently each of them gives me a somewhat similar and different definition of word meaning which is parsed in a different way.

So, I was wondering whether there is a standard dictionary. Which one should I go with and how do I need to start if I would really like to know what a 'word' means and not just cram to remember its definition?

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    Actually, I'd recommend using more than one. By getting more than one description of a word, you're more likely to get a more complete and accurate idea of the word's definition. If I'm looking up an unfamiliar word, I often check two or three dictionaries. – J.R. May 6 '13 at 3:32
  • Words aren't just lists of definitions, either. Sometimes a particular use of a word ends up straddling two or more definitions; they don't always fit neatly into one definition or another. And sometimes you'll find words used in ways that aren't listed in any dictionary! – snailplane Sep 15 '13 at 12:37
  • I recommend onelook to look up words. It shows you different definition and examples of a word and lists links to the word in many different other dictionaries. – Nearoo Apr 9 '17 at 3:25
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No, there is not a “standard dictionary”, and there cannot be. No dictionary “defines” conclusively what a word “means” or how it may be used. At most, it provides a list of approximate paraphrases reflecting how it is used in various contexts.

Those paraphrases are not in any sense official: they are attempts at an explanation by expert editors, just like the answers you get here on ELL.

When you look up an unfamiliar word in a dictionary what you hope to find is a meaning which makes sense in the context in which you have encountered the word. Consequently, the dictionary you should prefer is one which provides

  • the most different definitions . . . That will give you the best chance of finding a definition which makes sense in your context.
  • the most different contexts—examples of use in brief citations . . . That will give you the best chance of finding a context which you recognize as similar to your context.

The largest and most complete dictionary of English, in both of these dimensions, is the Oxford English Dictionary. But this is probably more dictionary than you actually want, since it is specifically intended to cover not only a word’s contemporary use but its use through recorded history. In any case, the most recent edition, and the one most useful to you, is available only through a fairly expensive online subscription. Many libraries and universities provide access to their own members.

All of the free online dictionaries you name provide reasonably full definitions. In my experience, the dictionary which regularly provides the most citations is OALD—the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary.

But there is no reason you should confine yourself to just one dictionary. Treat “the dictionary” like ELL: consult multiple dictionaries to get multiple answers, and “accept” the one which best suits your immediate needs.

Both Oxford Dictionaries Online and Cambridge Dictionaries Online provide access to multiple works, including dictionaries directed specifically toward the needs of learners and dictionaries directed specifically toward US and British usage. OneLook.com speeds your lookups by providing in a single report links to entries for a given headword in many dictionaries.

For even more citations you may consult a corpus, a large body of indexed texts. Google Books is the largest extant corpus; several smaller, but more usefully categorized corpora are available at Brigham Young University.

But neither a single dictionary or corpus, nor all dictionaries and corpora in concert, will provide you mastery of all of a word’s meanings and uses. Meanings and uses are not static, but constantly evolving, faster than dictionaries can keep up. Nobody really knows “what a ‘word’ means”.

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    +1 for the first two paragraphs alone. But I must say that I think for learners there might well actually be an advantage in checking a less comprehensive dictionary first. That way you'll get constant feedback for the most common meanings/usages (which it's surely more important to learn), and you'll know when you're dealing with an "unusual" context, because then you have to dig a bit deeper. There are often valuable insights to be gained from seeing how a word is used rarely/historically; if you don't even realise your context is "unusual", you might miss that important dimension. – FumbleFingers May 5 '13 at 19:35
  • @FumbleFingers I agree that getting down to the <5% meanings probably isn't useful for learners. On the other hand, another thing I like about OALD is that it gives a lot of likely meanings, as well as lots of fixed phrases, so learners aren't fobbed off with two or three meanings when looking up a polyvalent term like strike. – StoneyB on hiatus May 5 '13 at 20:29
  • I see here that the 44th of 49 definitions for strike at dictionary.com is Law. to choose (a jury) from a panel by striking off names until only the required number remains. I'd probably have assumed striking a jury meant discharging them all for some collective shortcoming in most contexts where I might have come across it. Sounds like lawyer-jargon to me. – FumbleFingers May 5 '13 at 22:14
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    @Fumble: I wouldn't recommend using a dictionary to memorize the meaning of many English words (like strike or pin). They are simply too versatile and diverse to learn from a dictionary – such words must be learned in context. – J.R. May 6 '13 at 3:37
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    To add to the great answers here, I'll note that some languages/countries have authorities that preside over the language and define things like word definitions, usages, etc. I believe China has had multiple periods where the basic writing system was up-ended by scholars and/or government officials. English still has its share of self-proclaimed authorities, but in practice it's such a decentralized language that it is "defined by common use" far more than any authority gets to say what is right or wrong - it's just about as democratic as the world can manage. – BrianH May 6 '13 at 22:10

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