Saturday, July 25, 2009

HowTo ... look up a word really fast

When you need to look up a word quickly - what do you do?

(We're assuming for a moment that you're at your computer. If not, then add an extra step: Go to you computer.)

You could open your paper dictionary (which you keep next to your computer, of course), you could surf to a dictionary website (like or - which would be even faster if you've bookmarked it), or you could phone a friend.

So here's how I do it ...

I might be at work, sending an email which contains the word "fortunately", and (at the back of my mind, because the front of my mind is for work only) I challenge myself. I can remember that the word in Mandarin is "xìng hǎo" (see the WordPack post on this) - but suddenly I can't remember how to write "xìng" in Chinese.

For a quick lookup, I use:
  • {apple}{tab} (switch to Firefox)
  • {apple} T (open a blank tab)
  • type: m xing hao {enter}
And that's it! Just a few keystrokes which take less than 3 seconds. The listing appears like this, and it's easy to see in the results which hanzi I'm looking for. It's just like magic (but without the annoying background music).

HowTo ... do it
  • (I use a Mac, but it's easy to make this work on Windows)
  • Switch to Firefox (and if you're not already using it, tsk tsk)
  • In your Bookmarks Menu right at the top, there is probably one called "Quick Searches" (create it if you don't have it)
  • Create a new bookmark in that folder with the following characteristics: Name="MDBG", Location="", Keyword="m"
  • Don't type the inverted commas above, just the content.
HowTo ... use it

From now on, when you begin a URL with the letter m, Firefox will send everything that you type after that into the URL you have entered, in place of the %s that appears in the address. So here are some examples of how you might use this:
  • m xing hao
  • m shi3
  • m shuō
  • m milkshake
  • m on good terms
  • m 纯文字页
  • m 开*

  • You can use different keywords instead of m (like 'lookup', 'dictionary', etc.) - but a single letter is the fastest.
  • Other browsers probably have a similar functionality to Firefox, so if you have the details on how to do it for them, please make a note in the comments below.
  • You can use other Net dictionaries, although in order to do this, the word or phrase that is being looked up must appear in the URL. For example, it doesn't work with If you have the location-text for a different dictionary, please leave it in the comments below for others to use.
OK, so your work here is done. Now go look something up.


  1. Just a quick update - MDBG has changed their syntax a little. They no longer allow spaces between the words - which is consistent with how hanzi are looked up in the dictionary.

    And so, you can no longer type 'm xing hao', you need to type 'm xinghao'.

  2. I do actually use MDBG and this will speed up my searches. Thank you. :)

  3. Pleased to hear that Charlie. Was looking at your blog - it looks really good. Will definitely spend more time there.

  4. Thanks Greg.

    I am finding it hard to balance the cultural and the language side of it all, almost as if it really wants to be a sister site.

    We shall see. I enjoy reading your blog, seems like a really interesting way of learning.

    Have you started writing the characters as well wih your stories?

  5. Charlie, I'm pleased to say that every day, as I learn more characters, there is a *measurable* improvement in my reading. Even at 400 characters, I feel so much more in control of the language.

    Amusingly, this means that I'm choosing not to listen to podcasts and rather to read the Heisig book. Really enjoying the progress.

    And because I know the 'primitives' of any character, it's easy to piece them together and write it. Give it a shot ... :-)

  6. I’m impressed, I must say. you hit the nail on the head. Your idea is outstanding;