Free dictionaries and "Dict OS X"

It’s really annoying that there are hardly any free and good multilingual dictionaries. Except that there are loads of online ones. I don’t like online services much, mostly due to latency. But also because native clients have the potential to be simply better.

Speaking of which, all the dictionary programs I’ve seen are really ugly. The content available for these programs generally don’t take advantage of the fact that they have an effectively unlimited amount of space to show you as much information as you might happen to want.

Imagine a translation dictionary that gave you conjugations and declensions of every word you asked of it and showed it in use in multiple contexts. (If you wanted that much information, of course.) That’d be, like, really useful for learning a language.

Of course, it’d be harder than transcribing a print dictionary into a searchable computer program. And I’m guessing there’s not that much money to be made from dictionaries at the best of times. But it would make a good free project/labour of love for language geeks.

Well, we gotta live with what we got. And I found it quite a pain to get dictionaries locally installed that can be accessed through a native application in Mac OS X.

Not knowing where to start, OmniDictionary seems pretty ideal to begin with. By all accounts, it’s “easy” to set it up to grab local dictionary content. But Jens Ropers’ DICTataro, recommended by Omni, is down at time of writing, so no luck there. Trying to manually set up a local dictionary server was a dismal failure. The links at dict.org are all rather old (i.e., nothing is actively maintained) and the Java programs listed there simply bailed when I tried to run them.

I finally had some luck with Dict OS X. The 0.1 version number and 2004 release date notwithstanding, at least it works. It comes by default with an English dictionary, and English to Czech and vice versa translation dictionaries. (Instructions for the program itself are all in Czech but luckily self-evident.)

More dictionaries can be downloaded from freedict.org. After downloading, say, the English to French files, there are a few steps to get the dictionary into Dict OS X:

  • Uncompress the eng-fra.dict.dz file. This is most easily done by renaming it to eng-fra.dict.gz and opening the file; Mac OS X’s extraction tool does the job.
  • Delete the compressed file and rename the containing folder to something like “English to French.dictosx” to turn it into a bundle (the name you chose is what appears in Dict OS X’s interface). It should contain the .dict file and a .index file of the same name.
  • Finally, move the newly created bundle to ~/Library/Application Support/Dict OS X/

Phew. And once you’ve gone through the tedium of doing all this, you’ll sadly discover that the dictionary is woefully inadequate:


That’s right. There’s no gender information for the nouns in this dictionary. It’s better than nothing, at a pinch. But I wonder what it would take to get a free dictionary like this off the ground. Because we certainly need something better.