Dictionaries contain all the most useful words in a language. Generally, this means they include all the non-technical terms we’re likely to hear or read in everyday use. Some words in a dictionary, however, are more likely to be referred to than others. Most people, obviously, find no reason to look up a word they are already familiar with. I mean, really, how many people feel the need to look up the word the?
On the other hand, words that are very rare are also less likely to be looked up, since people do not encounter them very often. I’m willing to bet that not many people have flung open the covers of a dictionary in search to the word amphisbaena, since we are unlikely to come across this word much (by the way, this means lizard with a head at both ends).
The words that are most frequently looked up are those words prancing around at the edge of people’s knowledge – terms that we feel we should know but are actually not certain about.
Let’s gain some grasp of the nature of words looked up by examining the words that online dictionaries are most commonly consulted for. One recent survey reported that anomaly was the most frequently looked-up word, followed by these:
What have you last looked up?