Dictionary Services

This week’s article is about dictionaries. No, not the Dictionary / NSDictionary / CFDictionaryRef we encounter every day, but rather those distant lexicographic vestiges of school days past.

Though widely usurped of their ‘go-to reference’ status by the Internet, dictionaries and word lists serve an important role behind the scenes for features ranging from spell check, grammar check, and auto-correct to auto-summarization and semantic analysis. So, for your reference, here’s a look at the ways and means by which computers give meaning to the world through words, in Unix, macOS, and iOS.


Nearly all Unix distributions include a small collection newline-delimited list of words. On macOS, these can be found at /usr/share/dict:

$ ls /usr/share/dict
    words@ -> web2

Symlinked to words is the web2 word list, which — though not exhaustive — is still a sizable corpus:

$ wc /usr/share/dict/words
    235886  235886 2493109

Skimming with head shows what fun lies herein. Such excitement is rarely so palpable as it is among words beginning with “a”:

$ head /usr/share/dict/words

These giant, system-provided text files make it easy to grep crossword puzzle clues, generate mnemonic passphrases, and seed databases. But from a user perspective, /usr/share/dict’s monolingualism and lack of associated meaning make it less than helpful for everyday use.

macOS builds upon this with its own system dictionaries. Never one to disappoint, the operating system’s penchant for extending Unix functionality by way of strategically placed bundles and plist files is in full force here with how dictionaries are distributed.


The macOS analog to /usr/share/dict can be found in /Library/Dictionaries. A quick peek into the shared system dictionaries demonstrates one immediate improvement over Unix: acknowledging the existence of languages other than English:

$ ls /Library/Dictionaries/
    Apple Dictionary.dictionary/
    Diccionario General de la Lengua Española Vox.dictionary/
    Duden Dictionary Data Set I.dictionary/
    Korean - English.dictionary/
    Multidictionnaire de la langue française.dictionary/
    New Oxford American Dictionary.dictionary/
    Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus.dictionary/
    Oxford Dictionary of English.dictionary/
    Oxford Thesaurus of English.dictionary/
    Sanseido Super Daijirin.dictionary/
    Sanseido The WISDOM English-Japanese Japanese-English Dictionary.dictionary/
    Simplified Chinese - English.dictionary/
    The Standard Dictionary of Contemporary Chinese.dictionary/

macOS ships with dictionaries in Chinese, English, French, Dutch, Italian, Japanese, and Korean, as well as an English thesaurus and a special dictionary for Apple-specific terminology.

Diving deeper into the rabbit hole, we peruse the .dictionary bundles to see them for what they really are:

$ ls "/Library/Dictionaries/New Oxford American Dictionary.dictionary/Contents"

A filesystem autopsy reveals some interesting implementation details. For New Oxford American Dictionary, in particular, its contents include:

Proprietary binary encoding like this would usually be the end of the road in terms of what one could reasonably do with data. Luckily, Core Services provides APIs to read this information.

Getting the Definition of Words

To get the definition of a word on macOS, one can use the DCSCopyTextDefinition function found in the Core Services framework:

import Foundation
import CoreServices.DictionaryServices

func define(_ word: String) -> String? {
    let nsstring = word as NSString
    let cfrange = CFRange(location: 0, length: nsstring.length)

    guard let definition = DCSCopyTextDefinition(nil, nsstring, cfrange) else {
        return nil

    return String(definition.takeUnretainedValue())

define("apple") // "apple | ˈapəl | noun 1 the round fruit of a tree..."

Wait, where did all of those great dictionaries go?

Well, they all disappeared into that first NULL argument. One might expect to provide a DCSCopyTextDefinition type here — as prescribed by the function definition. However, there are no public functions to construct or copy such a type, making nil the only available option. The documentation is as clear as it is stern:

This parameter is reserved for future use, so pass NULL. Dictionary Services searches in all active dictionaries.

“Dictionary Services searches in all active dictionaries”, you say? Sounds like a loophole!

Setting Active Dictionaries

Now, there’s nothing programmers love to hate to love more than exploiting loopholes to side-step Apple platform restrictions. Behold: an entirely error-prone approach to getting, say, thesaurus results instead of the first definition available in the standard dictionary:

NSUserDefaults *userDefaults = [NSUserDefaults standardUserDefaults];
NSMutableDictionary *dictionaryPreferences = [[userDefaults persistentDomainForName:@"com.apple.DictionaryServices"] mutableCopy];
NSArray *activeDictionaries = [dictionaryPreferences objectForKey:@"DCSActiveDictionaries"];
dictionaryPreferences[@"DCSActiveDictionaries"] = @[@"/Library/Dictionaries/Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus.dictionary"];
[userDefaults setPersistentDomain:dictionaryPreferences forName:@"com.apple.DictionaryServices"];
    NSString *word = @"apple";
    NSString *definition = (__bridge_transfer NSString *)DCSCopyTextDefinition(NULL, (__bridge CFStringRef)word, CFRangeMake(0, [word length]));
    NSLog(@"%@", definition);
dictionaryPreferences[@"DCSActiveDictionaries"] = activeDictionaries;
[userDefaults setPersistentDomain:dictionaryPreferences forName:@"com.apple.DictionaryServices"];

“But this is macOS, a platform whose manifest destiny cannot be contained by meager sandboxing attempts from Cupertino!”, you cry. “Isn’t there a more civilized approach? Like, say, private APIs?”

Why yes. Yes there are.

Exploring Private APIs

Not publicly exposed but still available through Core Services are a number of functions that cut closer to the dictionary services functionality we crave:

extern CFArrayRef DCSCopyAvailableDictionaries();
extern CFStringRef DCSDictionaryGetName(DCSDictionaryRef dictionary);
extern CFStringRef DCSDictionaryGetShortName(DCSDictionaryRef dictionary);
extern DCSDictionaryRef DCSDictionaryCreate(CFURLRef url);
extern CFStringRef DCSDictionaryGetName(DCSDictionaryRef dictionary);
extern CFArrayRef DCSCopyRecordsForSearchString(DCSDictionaryRef dictionary, CFStringRef string, void *, void *);

extern CFDictionaryRef DCSCopyDefinitionMarkup(DCSDictionaryRef dictionary, CFStringRef record);
extern CFStringRef DCSRecordCopyData(CFTypeRef record);
extern CFStringRef DCSRecordCopyDataURL(CFTypeRef record);
extern CFStringRef DCSRecordGetAnchor(CFTypeRef record);
extern CFStringRef DCSRecordGetAssociatedObj(CFTypeRef record);
extern CFStringRef DCSRecordGetHeadword(CFTypeRef record);
extern CFStringRef DCSRecordGetRawHeadword(CFTypeRef record);
extern CFStringRef DCSRecordGetString(CFTypeRef record);
extern CFStringRef DCSRecordGetTitle(CFTypeRef record);
extern DCSDictionaryRef DCSRecordGetSubDictionary(CFTypeRef record);

Private as they are, these functions aren’t about to start documenting themselves. So let’s take a look at how they’re used:

Getting Available Dictionaries

NSMapTable *availableDictionariesKeyedByName =
    [NSMapTable mapTableWithKeyOptions:NSPointerFunctionsCopyIn

for (id dictionary in (__bridge_transfer NSArray *)DCSCopyAvailableDictionaries()) {
    NSString *name = (__bridge NSString *)DCSDictionaryGetName((__bridge DCSDictionaryRef)dictionary);
    [availableDictionariesKeyedByName setObject:dictionary forKey:name];

Getting Definition for Word

With instances of the elusive DCSDictionaryRef type available at our disposal, we can now see what all of the fuss is about with that first argument in DCSCopyTextDefinition:

NSString *word = @"apple";

for (NSString *name in availableDictionariesKeyedByName) {
    id dictionary = [availableDictionariesKeyedByName objectForKey:name];

    CFRange termRange = DCSGetTermRangeInString((__bridge DCSDictionaryRef)dictionary, (__bridge CFStringRef)word, 0);
    if (termRange.location == kCFNotFound) {

    NSString *term = [word substringWithRange:NSMakeRange(termRange.location, termRange.length)];

    NSArray *records = (__bridge_transfer NSArray *)DCSCopyRecordsForSearchString((__bridge DCSDictionaryRef)dictionary, (__bridge CFStringRef)term, NULL, NULL);
    if (records) {
        for (id record in records) {
            NSString *headword = (__bridge NSString *)DCSRecordGetHeadword((__bridge CFTypeRef)record);
            if (headword) {
                NSString *definition = (__bridge_transfer NSString*)DCSCopyTextDefinition((__bridge DCSDictionaryRef)dictionary, (__bridge CFStringRef)headword, CFRangeMake(0, [headword length]));
                NSLog(@"%@: %@", name, definition);

                NSString *HTML = (__bridge_transfer NSString*)DCSRecordCopyData((__bridge DCSDictionaryRef)dictionary, (__bridge CFStringRef)headword, CFRangeMake(0, [headword length]));
                NSLog(@"%@: %@", name, definition);

Most surprising from this experimentation is the ability to access the raw HTML for entries, which — combined with a dictionary’s bundled CSS — produces the result seen in Dictionary.app.

Entry for apple in Dictionary.app


iOS development is a decidedly more by-the-books affair, so attempting to reverse-engineer the platform would be little more than an academic exercise. Fortunately, a good chunk of functionality is available through an obscure UIKit class, UIReferenceLibraryViewController.

UIReferenceLibraryViewController is similar to an MFMessageComposeViewController in that provides a minimally-configurable view controller around system functionality that’s intended to present modally.

You initialize it with the desired term:

UIReferenceLibraryViewController *referenceLibraryViewController =
    [[UIReferenceLibraryViewController alloc] initWithTerm:@"apple"];
[viewController presentViewController:referenceLibraryViewController

Presenting a UIReferenceLibraryViewController

This is the same behavior that one might encounter when tapping the “Define” menu item on a highlighted word in a text view.

Presenting a UIReferenceLibraryViewController

UIReferenceLibraryViewController also provides the class method dictionaryHasDefinitionForTerm:. A developer would do well to call this before presenting a dictionary view controller that will inevitably have nothing to display.

[UIReferenceLibraryViewController dictionaryHasDefinitionForTerm:@"apple"];

From Unix word lists to their evolved .dictionary bundles on macOS (and presumably iOS, too), words are as essential to application programming as mathematical constants and the “Sosumi” alert noise. Consider how the aforementioned APIs can be integrated into your own app, or used to create a kind of app you hadn’t previously considered.


Questions? Corrections? Issues and pull requests are always welcome.

This article uses Swift version 4.2. Find status information for all articles on the status page.

Written by Mattt

Mattt (@mattt) is a writer and developer in Portland, Oregon.

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