In recent years I grew quite used to the functionality presented by e-readers, some browsers and other tools to look up quickly a word in a dictionary while you’re reading something.1 English is not my first language and from time to time I come across something I don’t know, so I appreciate being able to figure it out quickly. That’s also a great way to learn new words and improve your vocabulary.

Turns out Emacs 28 has introduced some pretty similar functionality with the command dictionary-lookup-definition that will lookup the word at point. You can bind this command to something like C-c l (l for “lookup”):

(global-set-key (kbd "C-c l") #'dictionary-lookup-definition)

This command is part of the much bigger dictionary package, that is full of all sorts of features - e.g. a fully fledged dictionary-mode where you can search for words (you can start it with M-x dictionary). Lots of cool features there, but I need only the lookup word at point functionality most of the time.

One thing to keep in mind is that by default Emacs will try to use a locally installed dictionary server (dictd) and fallback to if such a server is not available. Installing the server is quite easy (the instructions below are for Debian and friends):

$ sudo apt-get install dictd dict dict-{wn,vera,jargon,devil,gcide,foldoc}
$ sudo systemctl enable dictd

The above command will install the dictionary server and some common dictionaries. But if you’re lazy like me, you can just force the use of all the time:

(setq dictionary-server "")

You’ve got the following options for dictionary-server:

  • Automatic: First try localhost, then after confirmation (default)
  • localhost: Only use localhost
  • Only use
  • User-defined: You can specify your own server here (e.g. “”)

Choose wisely!

That’s all I have for you today. Now you have one less reason to leave the comfort of Emacs and you’ll get to learn a lot of new words quickly! Keep hacking!

  1. I think the Kindle introduced to me this feature and macOS made me a huge fan of it (there you can access the macOS dictionary from pretty much every app that does something with text).