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           Emacs package for talking to a dictionary server


In December 1998 I installed the dictd server, which can be used to access several dictionaries using a simple protocol as defined in RFC 2229 (Text Version).

As my primary working environment is XEmacs 21, I decided to write an Emacs-Lisp package for accessing this dictionary server. The older webster.el didn't worked with the newer protocol. After starting the implementation I was pointed to an already existing implementation, but this was basically a wrapper to the dict client program and didn't have all the features I wanted and have now been implemented in this dictionary client.

If you didn't received this file from its original location you can visit it at


The dictionary mode provides the following features: * looking up word definitions in all dictionaries * search for matching word * words/phrases marked with { } in the dictionary definitions are recognized as hyper links and browseable * easy selection of dictionary and search strategy * backward moving through the visited definitions * in the latest versions of GNU Emacs and XEmacs you get support for popup menus * in GNU Emacs 21 you can lookup words by simply pointing the mouse cursor to them (tool-tips)

Here are three sample screenshot showing the dictionary mode in action within an Emacs 21 buffer:

This buffer shows the result of searching the definition for distinguished. A lot of entries have been found, including translation into german and russian language. The blue words are hyper-links that points to the definitions of these words. The hyper-link with the green background will be activated when pressing the middle mouse button.

This buffer shows the result of looking for matching words to possible. You can now select one of the found entries or ignore the search by pressing any mouse button outside the menu.

This screenshot shows the tool-tips supported in GNU Emacs 21. Whenever the mouse cursor stands still for a certain time (about one second) the word at cursor is looked up in the configured dictionary. This example shows the german translation for originally, in this context not the right one, ursprfnglich would be better.

                       Download and Requirements

I have tested the package with a native GNU Emacs 19.34.1 and XEmacs 20.4. I implemented some hacks to work with the very very old custom.el file in the above GNU Emacs. Please update to the current version whenever possible. XEmacs 21 and Emacs 20 as well as Emacs 21 have been tested too. * Current version (1.9) of this package * Version 1.5.1 of this package * Version 1.4.1 of this package * Version 1.3.3 of this package * Version 1.2.1 of this package * Version 1.1 of this package * Initial version (1.0) of this package

I you want to know more about the differences please look at the ChangeLog.

You will need the custom package to use this package. For full support please check if your system knows the defface function, if not please download the current version.

For best usability I suggest using the mouse, but it provide good keyboard support as well.

                         Unpacking the archive

The package is distributed as tar.gz file. You unpack it using: gzip -dc dictionary-1.9.tar.gz | tar xf -

or tar -xzf dictionary-1.9.tar.gz

(with the version number subject to change) depending on whether you are using GNU tar which support the z flag for compression. After unpacking the archive a directory dictionary-1.9 has been created containing the necessary files.



If you are using a current Debian distribution (one that support the emacsen package system) and have the dpkg-dev installed (for running dpkg-buildpackage) you can use the supplied debian support. make debian

This will create a package named dictionary-1.9-1_i386.deb or similiar in the parent directory of dictionary-1.9. You can now install this package as root, it will automatically byte-compile itself for all installed emacs versions and provide a startup-file which autoloads this package. In the configuration example given below you can omit the autoload lines.

If you no longer want to use this package, you can remove it using: dpkg -r dictionary

XEmacs 21

The XEmacs version 21 support so called xemacs packages. These packages are also supported, you can create them using: make EMACS=xemacs package

The created package will be named dictionary-1.5-pkg.tar.gz and stored within the current directory. If you don't want to install this package manually, you can use the following command, provided you have sufficient privileges (if unsure, login as super user): make EMACS=xemacs package-install

If you have more than one XEmacs versions installed make sure the EMACS argument to make points to the current binary.


Byte compiling

For faster loading and executing of the package I strongly suggest that you byte-compile the files. Emacs user please call make within the create subdirectory, XEmacs user has to specify there favorite tool using make EMACS=xemacs. If your custom package is not up-to-date expect some warnings about free variables.

Installing the files

To install the files into your GNU Emacs/XEmacs installation please copy the *.elc files into a directory being in your load-path variable. On most installations /usr/lib/emacs/site-lisp or /usr/local/lib/emacs/site-lisp are suitable locations.

                          Loading the package

You have to insert some instructions into your .emacs file to load the dictionary package whenever needed. If you installed this dictionary package as Debian package or XEmacs package you don't need the autoloads, they are already supplied. Other users I suggest using the following lines: (autoload 'dictionary-search “dictionary” “Ask for a word and search it in all dictionaries” t) (autoload 'dictionary-match-words “dictionary” “Ask for a word and search all matching words in the dictionaries” t) (autoload 'dictionary-lookup-definition “dictionary” “Unconditionally lookup the word at point.” t) (autoload 'dictionary “dictionary” “Create a new dictionary buffer” t) (autoload 'dictionary-mouse-popup-matching-words “dictionary” “Display entries matching the word at the cursor” t) (autoload 'dictionary-popup-matching-words “dictionary” “Display entries matching the word at the point” t) (autoload 'dictionary-tooltip-mode “dictionary” “Display tooltips for the current word” t) (autoload 'global-dictionary-tooltip-mode “dictionary” “Enable/disable dictionary-tooltip-mode for all buffers” t)

In addition, some key bindings for faster access can be useful. I use the following ones in my installation: ;; key bindings (global-set-key “\C-cs” 'dictionary-search) (global-set-key “\C-cm” 'dictionary-match-words)

I will describe the user-callable functions and the key bindings within dictionary mode later in this document.

                           Using the package


Before I start describing how you use this package, please let me explain some words as they are used in this text:

word This is a word you want to lookup in the dictionaries verbatim.

pattern This is used for looking up matching words. A pattern can be as simple as a single word but also as complex as a POSIX regular expression. The meaning of a pattern depends on the strategy used for matching words.

dictionary The server can handle several distinct dictionaries. You can select specific dictionaries or ask the server to search in all dictionaries or until matches or definitions are found. To search in all dictionaries the special name * is used, the special name ! requests to search until definitions are found. For more details please take a look at the standards definition.

definition A dictionary entry that can be the result of a word search.

search The operation of looking up a word in the dictionaries.

match The operation of comparing a pattern to all words in the dictionary.

strategy While matching in a dictionary serveral methods for comparing words can be used. These methods are named strategies and include exact match, regular expression match, and soundex match. The available strategies depends on the server, but a special name . can be used to denote a server-default strategy.


There are five different (documented) ways of invoking the package. By calling dictionary you can start a new dictionary buffer waiting for your commands. If you want to create multiple buffers for searching the dictionary, you can run this function multiple times. dictionary-search will ask for a word a search defaulting to the word at point and present all definitions found.

If you want to lookup the word near the point without further confirmation use the dictionary-lookup-definition function. The last one is dictionary-match-words which will ask for a pattern and display all matching words.

You can also display a popup menu showing the definition for a certain word. You just place the mouse cursor above the word you want to lookup and press the assigned mouse button. The sample definition in section Customizing binds this command to the right mouse button in GNU Emacs and to ctrl + right mouse button in XEmacs. For mouse invocation use dictionary-mouse-popup-matching-words, for assigning to a key combination use the dictionary-popup-matching-words function. The latter function search for the word located at point.

I have tested this feature in Emacs 21 and XEmacs 21. Emacs 20 do not support this kind of popup menus (you will get an error message if you try anyway), XEmacs 20 or prior has not been tested yet.

A new feature of version 1.5 is the tool-tip support. This will only work in GNU Emacs 21, XEmacs uses a different mechanism (called balloon help) which can not easily be adapted. Please note, the tool-tip mode may slow down your Emacs, especially if you prefer using the mouse.

First you have to define the dictionary for looking up words to display in the tool-tip window. You could use * to search in all dictionaries, however tool-tip window should be rather small. I use an english to german dictionary for myself, which is called eng-deu (you can find out the name if you look into contents of the square brackets within the dictionary buffer; for example, the line From WordNet (r) 1.6[wn]: tells you the name of this dictionary is wn). (setq dictionary-tooltip-dictionary “eng-deu”)

Next you have to decide if you want tool-tip support in the current buffer only or in all buffers. For the first use the dictionary-tooltip-mode command, for the latter global-dictionary-tooltip-mode. ;; choose on of the following lines (global-dictionary-tooltip-mode 1) (dictionary-tooltip-mode 1)

To turn the tool-tip support off, call these functions with a numeric argument of 0.

If you get an error message that the server could not be contacted, please check the values of the variables dictionary-server and dictionary-port. The port should usually be 2628, the default server as distributed is

You can have multiple independent dictionary buffer. If the above functions are called from within dictionary mode they reuse the existing buffer. Otherwise they create a new buffer.


Once a dictionary buffer is created you can close it by simply typing q (dictionary-close) or pressing the [Quit] button on the top. Another, more cruel, way is to use the kill-buffer function which is handled correctly.

The dictionary mode save the window configuration on startup and try to reestablish it when the buffer is being closed.

Using the buffer

After a successful search the buffer is divided into two sections. The first one is the button area at the top, the other one is the text buffer displaying the result. By pressing the buttons you can select some functions that are otherwise inaccessible with the mouse.

In the text are each definition is introduced by the name of the database that contains it. In the default configuration this text is in italic face. The definition itself can contains hyper links that are marked using blue foreground and both sensitive to clicking with the mouse and pressing return while being within the link.

Each link selection or otherwise selected new search or match will create a new buffer showing the new result. You can use the [Back] button on the top or the l key (dictionary-previous) to return the previous buffer contents.

Pressing Meta while clicking on a link to start the search will extent the search to all dictionaries (dictionary-default-dictionary to be more precisely).

If you prefer using the keyboard it can be very frustrating to use the cursor key to position the point before pressing return to visit the link is possible. Therefore, I defined the Tab and the n keys to jump to the next link (dictionary-next-link) and the Shift-Tab and p keys to jump to the previous one (dictionary-prev-link). Please note that the Shift-Tab key may be the same as the Tab key when running Emacs within a tty (in contrast to a windowing system like X11). There is no way for a application to differ Shift-Tab from Tab in this case, please use the p key to visit the previous link if you run into this problem.


The search operation can be invoked by using the [Search Definition] button on the top or by pressing s (dictionary-search). It will ask for a word to search and will default to the word near point. This allows you to edit the word before starting the search. The found definitions will be displayed inside the buffer. If no entries could not be found an error message will be displayed.

If you want to quickly lookup the word at the point without further confirmation use the d key (dictionary-lookup-definition). Except for not allowing to edit the search word before asking the server it behaves the same way as the normal search operation.


The match operation is started upon pressing the [Matching Words] button or pressing the m key (dictionary-match-words). It will use the current database and the current strategy and list matching words for the one you entered at the prompt. The output is grouped by dictionary and each found word can be looked up by clicking the word or pressing return. Please note that in some cases not only the requested definition but some similiar definitions are shown. This behaviour is caused by the keyword lookup in the server. E.g., when you ask for the definition of from in Webster you will presented with the definitions of from and Thrust, the latter includes the phrase To thrust away or from which causes the display.

Selecting dictionary

By default all dictionaries (special name is “*”) are searched for a word definition or for matching words. You can select a specific word for both modi by pressing the [Select Default Dictionary] button or the D key (dictionary-select-dictionary). You will get a message about successful selection.

If you hold Meta while selecting a dictionary you will get more information displayed instead.

If you want to restore the original behaviour select All dictionaries. The first matching dictionary is a special dictionary (named “!”) where the search will stop at the first dictionary with found definitions or matching words.

Selection search strategy

While searching matching words to the pattern you entered the server can use different comparison algorithm (aka search strategy). Every server provides a default strategy which is internally known as “.”.

After pressing the [Select Match Strategy] button or pressing the M key (dictionary-select-strategy) all available strategies on this server are presented. As in the “select dictionary” mode you can select it by pressing the mouse button 2 or typing return.

Going backward

If you visited a link and want to go back to the previous definition, simply choose the [Back] button or press the l key (dictionary-previous). The buffer contents and cursor position will be restored. If you intented to go beyond the first definition an error message will appear.

Getting Help

If you are totally confused what all the keys do in your dictionary buffer some help will displayed by pressing the h key. Within XEmacs you can exit the help screen by pressing q, in GNU Emacs you have to switch to the help window using C-x o (other-window) first. This help buffer will display the default key bindings only as I had problems with displaying multiple bindings for a single function (e.g., both button2 and return select a link). Any suggestions are welcome.

Proxy support

Starting from version 1.6 (not officially released) the dictionary client supports connections via HTTP proxies. It uses the CONNECT method which is usually used to relay SSL connections through a proxy. On most proxies the dictionary port (2628) must be configured to be allowed to connect through the proxy server. You will get an error message like: HTTP/1.0 500 WWWOFFLE Server Error

if this is not the case.

To enable proxy support, set the variable dictionary-use-http-proxy to true. This can be done through the customize interface, there is a sub-group named Dictionary Proxy of the Dictionary group. Other settings you can modify are the name of the proxy server (dictionary-proxy-server, Default proxy) and the port of the proxy server (dictionary-proxy-port, Default 3128).

Support for different encodings in dictionaries

Although the standard definition specifies UTF-8 as character encoding to be used for the protocol there exists dictionaries encoding in other encodings like koi8-r for the russian language. To support these dictionaries there exists starting from version 1.7 a variable named dictionary-coding-systems-for-dictionaries. This is a list of cons cell containing the dictionary name (as string) and the coding system to use (as symbol). For modifying the variable the customize interface should be used, it helps you selecting a valid charset and keeping the lisp structure intact.

If a dictionary is not specified in this list its encoding defaults to UTF-8.

The default setting '( (“mueller” . koi8-r))

specifies that the koi8-r encoding should be used for the english-russian dictionary internally called mueller. The internal dictionary name can be found in brackets within the dictionaries output buffer after the long dictionary name (for example, the output From WordNet (r) 1.6[wn] specifies the internal name of the Wordnet dictionary being wn.


If you have an sufficient recent custom version installed (e.g., the one provided in XEmacs 20.4) you can use the customize-group with the dictionary group to customize this package. For using the customize buffer please refer to its online help.

Of course you can set all the variables and hooks you want in the startup file. Here is a little example that I use for selecting the server on my local machine and for binding some function to the user-reserved keys starting from C-c a to C-c z. It also shows how to invoke popup menus (using the right button in GNU Emacs or ctrl+right button in XEmacs) and installs the global tooltip-mode. (global-set-key “\C-cs” 'dictionary-search) (global-set-key “\C-cm” 'dictionary-match-words) (setq dictionary-server “localhost”)

;; Popup menu for GNU Emacs 21, and XEmacs 21 (if (boundp 'running-xemacs) (global-set-key [(control button3)] 'dictionary-mouse-popup-matching-words) (global-set-key [mouse-3] 'dictionary-mouse-popup-matching-words))

;; Tool-tip support for GNU Emacs 21 (setq dictionary-tooltip-dictionary “eng-deu”) (global-dictionary-tooltip-mode 1)


I want to thank Sam Steingold, Baoqiu Cui, Bruce Ravel, Pavel Janf, Sergei Pokrovsky, Jeff Mincy, Serge Boiko, Enrico Scholz, Reuben Thomas, Rui Zhu, Eugene Morozov, and Robert Pluim for their valuable suggestions (including patches) for improving this package.


This file is free software; you can redistribute it and/or modify it under the terms of the GNU General Public License as published by the Free Software Foundation; either version 2, or (at your option) any later version.

This file is distributed in the hope that it will be useful, but WITHOUT ANY WARRANTY; without even the implied warranty of MERCHANTABILITY or FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE. See the GNU General Public License for more details.

You should have received a copy of the GNU General Public License version 2 along with this package; see the file GPL.


Version 1.8.7 - 1.9

 * Include some fixes for Emacs24 based on debian version.

Version 1.8.6 - 1.8.7

 * fixed decoding problem when selecting dictionary (problem reported by
   Kuno Strassmann)

Version 1.8.5 - 1.8.6

 * added patch fixing the wrong display of dictionary description
   (provided by Sergei Pokrovsky)
 * added dictionary-description-open-delimiter and
   dictionary-description-close-delimiter (suggested by Sergei Pokrovsky)

Version 1.8.4 - 1.8.5

 * added variable dictionary-use-single-buffer to allow selecting
   between single/multiple buffers for dictionary access
 * added tooltip support for XEmacs based on balloon-help

Version 1.8 - 1.8.4

 * fixed Makefile
 * Fixed multiple defined function in dictionary.el
 * install-pkg was missing in the last tarball

Version 1.7.4 - 1.8

 * added search for similiar words when the searched word is not found.

Version 1.7.3 - 1.7.4

 * dictionary.el (dictionary-do-matching): removed quotes around
   dictionary name and match strategy

 * dictionary.el (dictionary-do-search): removed quotes around dictionary

 * dictionary.el (dictionary-display-more-info): removed quotes around
   dictionary name

 This problem (occurring with jdictd) was reported by E C Vijil

Version 1.7.2 - 1.7.3

 * dictionary.el (dictionary-default-popup-strategy): added this
   variable and changed dictionary-popup-matching-words to use
   this as matching strategy (suggested by Renaud Pons)

Version 1.7.1 - 1.7.2

 * link.el  (link-initialize-keymap):  fixed keybinding bug (reported
   by David A. Panariti)

Version 1.7 - 1.7.1

 * fixed  mule-detection in dictionary-coding-system (patch submitted
   by Robert Pluim)

Version 1.5.1 - 1.7

 * added HTTP proxy support (using the CONNECT method)
 * added  support for dictionaries not encoded in utf-8 (suggested by
   Eugene Morozov)

Version 1.5 - 1.5.1

 * fixed bug with non-working dictionary-previous (found by Rui Zhu)
 * fixed key bindings in link.el

Version 1.4.1 - 1.5

 * tool-tip support for GNU Emacs 21

Version 1.4 - 1.4.1

 * changed recognition of utf-8 support (suggested by Enrico Scholz)

Version 1.3.3 - 1.4

 * added popup menu for easier lookup of words

Version 1.3.2 - 1.3.3

 * added  support  for  XEmacs  21  packages to ease installation for
   those users (suggested and reviewed by Enrico Scholz)

Version 1.3.1 - 1.3.2

 * replaced   set-text-properties   by   remove-text-properties   and
   add-text-properties  because  this  function  is  not  recommended
   within XEmacs (reported by Serge Boiko)

Version 1.3 - 1.3.1

 * small  fix in dictionary function to check for availability of the
   utf-8  encoding  to  prevent  problems  in certain xemacs versions
   (reported by Jeff Mincy)
 * added debian support (use dpkg-buildpackage to build a package)

Version 1.2.1 - 1.3

 * Implemented an automatic detection for line ends CR/LF and LF. The
   variable  connection-broken-end-of-line is no longer necessary and
   its value ignored.
 * Added  utf-8  support,  the native character set of the dictionary
   protocol.  Using  ISO-8859-1  (aka  latin-1)  was just a necessary

Version 1.2 - 1.2.1

 * Corrected dictionary command to draw the button bar.
 * Improved documentation on dictionary to explicitly mention the use
   of multiple buffers.

Version 1.1.1 - 1.2

 * Some  users  reported  problems with GNU Emacs 20.3 and MULE. So I
   introduced  a  new  variable  connection-broken-end-of-line  which
   controls whether a line is ended by \n or by \r\n. You can use the
   customize-group command on dictionary to change the setting of the

Version 1.1 - 1.1.1

 * dictionary-search now allows editing the word to search for
 * dictionary-search-word-near-point  has  been  removed, you can use
   dictionary-lookup-definition     instead.    It    behaves    like
   dictionary-search but don't allow the search word to be edited (to
   speed up looking up words).

Version 1.0 - 1.1

 * all dictionary buffers now share a single connection
 * added kill-all-local-variables
 * use cons instead of list where possible
 * dictionary-search now:
      + use     word    as    point    as    default    (implementing
        dictionary-search-word-near-point too)
      + asks for dictionary with prefix argument
 * added help-echo tags which are used in XEmacs
 * mark has been replaced by generic marker
 * added  messages  for  communications to the dictionary server that
   may take a while
 * fixed bug with going to the previous link
 * replaced word-at-point by current-word