Tutorial: Make Quicksilver your Dictionary

MacApper TutorialI won’t belabor (you can use this tip to find out what ‘belabor’ means) you with more Quicksilver fanboyism… We already know how awesome it is. What I will do though, is share with you a little tip that I’ve found really helpful when reading, writing and blogging. I know there are many great ways to look-up a word in the dictionary on the fly in Mac OS X, but unfortunately my favorite method–selecting text and then pressing Command-Control-D–only lets me view one definition at a time. Take a peek at this very simple look-up technique and I think you’ll be pleased to find there is a simple way to use Quicksilver to get definitions and look at multiple words at once.

The Quicksilver Dictionary Plug-in is a bit different from Mac OS X’s standard Dictionary.app, and instant look-up in three ways. The first is the window in which the results are displayed. The plug-in uses it’s own custom low-profile display panel. The second difference is the addition of another source from which the definition can be gleaned. Yet, this other source, www.dict.org, is only queried when the “Define…” action is activated (and we won’t even touch on that in the scope of this tutorial). Otherwise the results mirror Dictionary.app’s New Oxford definitions exactly. Finally, and the reason I think this plug-in is worth using in spite of it’s apparent similarity to Dictionary.app, you can open multiple definition windows concurrently.

Well, let’s get started. First, you will need to ensure that the Dictionary Quicksilver plug-in is installed on your computer. If you have already installed the plug-in or know how you may want to skip ahead to the next paragraph. For the rest of us, let’s through installing the plug-in as a bit of a refresher. Open the Quicksilver preference window from the menu bar or dock contextual menu (if you have either of them enabled) or by activating Quicksilver and pressing Command-” (Command-Shift-Single Quote). Now, if it is not already selected choose the “All Plug-ins” tab on the left hand side of the window. In this window you should notice the Dictionary plug-in. If the plug-in’s associated check box (the little square to the left of it’s icon) is not checked press it and wait briefly while Quicksilver downloads and installs the plug-in for you. Once you’ve seen the cue to relaunch Quicksilver you are ready to go.

Quicksilver Plugins

Now that the Dictionary plug-in installation is taken care of, looking up a word using Quicksilver will be quick and easy. Activate the Quicksilver window as normal and switch to “Text Mode” by pressing either “.” (Period) or ” ‘ ” (Single Quote). In the resulting text input type or paste the word you desire to look up. Press the “Tab” key to bring up an action modifier. Here you will want to enter “Dictionary” (or as many letters as it takes to reveal the appropriate action). Upon pressing return you will be presented with your definition in a simple panel window. You can also look up synonyms using the same plug-in by typing “Thesaurus” after entering your desired word.

Dictionary Look-up Trigger

Now we can set up a Trigger Hot-Key to let us look up words on the fly in a similar fashion to “Command-Control-D.” If you have been with MacApper a while, and read our ‘How to Control iTunes with Quicksilver’ Tutorial the following will likely appear pretty familiar. Activate Quicksilver and open the Trigger window by pressing Command-’ (Command-Single Quote). Select the “Custom Triggers” tab on the left and add a new trigger by pressing the plus sign in the lower left hand corner.

Add Trigger buttons

Creating TriggerDouble clicking the newly created action will reveal a panel with several text inputs. The commands you add in these inputs will cascade during activation in the same way Quicksilver actions always do. In the first input box type “Current Selection”, obviously this will pass Quicksilver the currently selected text. In the next box down type “Dictionary”. Now Quicksilver will pass the selected text to the dictionary plug-in’s action.

You still need a way to activate the trigger. Do this by pressing the “i” info button in the bottom right-hand side of the window. The drawer that will be revealed lets you do a number of things but we are only concerned with setting a Hot Key and a name for the action. A Hot Key combination I found works pretty well for me is Control-Option-Command-D. Sure it’s a bit hard to push that many keys but it’s similar enough to the default Apple Dictionary look-up hot keys that I won’t likely forget it. Finally name your action what ever you like.

QS Dictionary Window

If all has gone well you should now be able to do a quick Dictionary look-up of your text selection from almost anywhere with multiple look-up instances at once. Remember you make this a synonym look-up trigger by just replacing “Dictionary” with “Thesaurus” in the Trigger’s action panel It’s a simple trick that’s been helpful for me and I hope it will be helpful for you too.


56 Responses to “Tutorial: Make Quicksilver your Dictionary”

  1. Simon on August 19th, 2007 7:08 am

    Hi Tyler. I can’t seem to get this working with non-cocoa apps, i.e. FireFox. I thought this would be a handy way of getting around that limitation with the built-in dictionary, but apparantly not (unless someone can offer any advice on how to make this work?).

    Neat tip nonetheless.

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  3. Superdotman on August 19th, 2007 2:40 pm

    Or you could just hold Control-Command-D and sweep the mouse over different words, without selecting them. ;)

  4. bassoon on August 20th, 2007 4:38 am

    Simon, highlight text in Firefox, invoke QS, command V, tab and dict gets you there. Not as fast as in Cocoa apps but still only a few keys away. No need to command C to copy as the highlighted text goes into QS with the paste command after highlight.

  5. Quicksilver Quickie: Use Quicksilver as Your Dictionary · TechBlogger on August 20th, 2007 3:38 pm

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  6. Jon on August 20th, 2007 5:18 pm

    Awesome tip! I just can’t seem to get “current selection” to come up in the first box. Any ideas?

  7. hansning on August 20th, 2007 5:48 pm

    i think i may have a better solution which i have been using, which is to use the GrowlDict. even though it isn’t supported anymore, it still works and works great! i posted this randomly on a short-lived blog here: http://hansning.wordpress.com/2007/02/12/mac-growl-dictionary/
    let me know how you like it

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  9. Adam on August 20th, 2007 6:46 pm


    When you’re in the Quicksilver preference pane, go to Catalog > Quicksliver and check the box next to “Proxy Objects.” This should add the “Current Selection” option for you.

    I have been having a hard time getting something other than “‘(null)’ could not be found.” to pop up though.

  10. dalliance13 on August 20th, 2007 6:58 pm


    go to quicksilver preferences, enable advanced, relaunch, back to preferences, catalog, tick proxy objects

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  12. Doug on August 20th, 2007 8:40 pm

    This seems to only work for Cocoa apps for me (like Mail etc)
    It doesn’t work on Firefox, I’m also getting (null)

  13. Jon on August 20th, 2007 9:40 pm

    Thanks adam and dalliance, finally figured it out. It seems I’m also getting the “null” message to when using it wih firefox.

  14. Adam on August 20th, 2007 9:55 pm


    I found that if I switched from Dictionary.app to Define with dict.org it worked.

  15. shadowstorm on August 20th, 2007 10:11 pm

    I keep getting a ‘”(null)” could not be found.’ error when I use this (in the define window that pops up after highlighting a word and invoking the shortcut). At first I thought I was missing some other Proxy Objects, but after enabling pretty much everything in QS, I’m not so sure any longer. Anyone else run into anything similar?

  16. anechoic on August 20th, 2007 10:53 pm

    besides Firefox it doesn’t work with Neo Office which is a bummer except with the kludgy paste into QS

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  21. Nathan on August 21st, 2007 11:10 am

    This does not solve the biggest issue with using a dictionary, I’m usually trying to spell the word properly. F12 and typing my word into Merriam-Webster is still the fastest way to do that. Replacing part of the URL via the dict.org thing is a PITA.

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  24. Marc on May 13th, 2008 8:50 pm

    The regular “dictionary” action provided by the dictionary plug-in is broken on leopard.

    See this thread for more info:

  25. mikel on December 16th, 2008 8:01 pm

    thank you for this tutorial

  26. Hannah on December 29th, 2008 4:00 am

    For some reason, this doesn’t work for me. When I follow everything this tutorial tells me, I end up getting, “null” on my output window. Can someone help me, please?

  27. martin on December 29th, 2008 3:50 pm

    First I copy the word I want to look up (cmd+c). Then I use a trigger (my case: alt-d) to set off “Clipboard content” proxy object with the “Look up in dictionary”.
    This requires switching to advanced mode and enabling Clipboard module as well as dictionary and service menu module if I remeber correctly.

  28. ***** on January 23rd, 2009 12:27 pm

    i have a different version of quicksilver

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  30. ny on June 12th, 2009 6:52 pm

    for leopard the trigger invokes the blank window but no output is shown from dictionary. it throws “….your word here…” could not be found

  31. Eric on August 5th, 2009 2:04 am

    If you are using 10.5 you can add the “Services Menu Module”. Once added, launch QS, hit “.” to enter text mode, type your word, then hit Tab, and type “Lookup” and hit Enter. Voila! You’re definition appears. Much quicker way of using Dictionary.app :) Enjoy.

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  33. AJ on September 8th, 2011 2:46 am

    Thanks Eric, that was pretty simple and fast…!

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