I always viewed dictionaries as a collection that formalized the definitions of words and phrases. However, I've seen that different dictionaries give different definitions for the same word, which changes the meaning of that word.

Take for example the word "sardonic":

Merriam-Webster: marked by the use of wit that is intended to cause hurt feelings

Vocabulary.com: disdainfully or ironically humorous; scornful and mocking

Oxford Learner's Dictionary: showing that you think that you are better than other people and do not take them seriously

New Oxford American Dictionary: grimly mocking or cynical

Some of the dictionaries seem to imply that it describes someone who is scornful because of their sharp sense of humor, while the others seem to imply it's because of arrogance. These definitions seem to clash with each other.

Which one should I focus on? Is there a "standard" dictionary that I can always rely on?

  • 3
    You cannot rely on any dictionary really. You have to listen to the people around you actually using the word. Dictionaries, by definition, always lag behind the actual usage; their definitions have to be concise; and different dictionaries are written by different people at different points in time. You yourself have provided a fine example of what comes of that.
    – RegDwigнt
    Jan 6, 2020 at 16:44
  • 1
    No, a sharp sense of humor does not cause sardonic comments, it's only a tool for the put-down. Jan 6, 2020 at 16:55
  • This question might benefit from considering the kind of dictionary in use. For example, a "learner's dictionary" is often geared to people learning English, and therefore offers more cultural explanation (here, a focus on motive - "showing that you think you are better than other people") than other dictionaries. Jan 6, 2020 at 17:30
  • 2
    No two people have the exact same interpretation of a given word.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 6, 2020 at 21:52

2 Answers 2


Language isn't math. A words meaning doesn't start from someone deciding on a meaning out of thin air and assigning a word to it that must always exactly and without exception be followed or things break.

Dictionary entries are -attempts- at capturing what a word means. There's no standard

All that said, some dictionaries are more respected than others. And separately, some websites are easier to use than others.

OED is the best English dictionary for reliable accurate nuances of words, but 1) it may be a bit of a fire hose, 2) it takes a bit of scholarly ambition to use and 3) is not immediately free on-line (but is often available for free through a local US or UK library.

Merriam-Webster is the next best (but is mostly just American English).

Most other online dictionaries are useful for language learners or casual users. They give passable definitions that will allow you to understand a newspaper or novel. Oxford Learners/Lexico/Collins/dictionary.com/vocabulary.com/etc/etc/etc. But don't think of them as legal documents or scientifically exact stipulations of usage. They're just trying.

You may have noticed that I have not mentioned Urban Dictionary or Wiktionary. UD is good for getting a vague idea about slang, but it is supplied by users who are not necessarily interested in explaining anything, and may not be invested in quality. Wiktionary is also crowd-sourced (by people who are interested), but is built up from scratch so there are a lot of gaps.

The best bet is to do what you just did, consult more than one dictionary and see what is common.


Out of the three, I usually refer MW, as it's been around since 1828. But that's not to mean that using other dictionaries is inutile. Vocabulary.com has one of the best ways of defining words, but for some words, it can stray away from the acceptation.

In a nutshell, to completely understand a word, its synonyms, and usage, I'd recommend using MW, Vocabulary.com and Oxford.

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