Do you want to buy a dictionary, but don’t know which one to get? Then my list of best Latin dictionaries for students is just what you need.
There are a lot of Latin dictionaries out there, so it can be overwhelming if you don’t know what to look for. In this post, I give the pros and cons of my six favorite Latin-English dictionaries . . . and I show you what to look for, so you can make an informed decision yourself.
This post may contain affiliate links and I may receive a commission, at no extra cost to you, if you make a purchase through a link. See my disclosures for more details.
I have divided the dictionaries into two categories: those suited for beginning and intermediate students and those suited for advanced learners.
If you’re just here for a quick recommendation, my top choice for beginners and intermediate students is The New College Latin & English Dictionary. It is clear and thorough while also managing to be small and affordable (typically less than $10).
For advanced students, my favorite is definitely Lewis and Short’s A Latin Dictionary. This is the dictionary that I use every day as a PhD student at Harvard.
If you want to learn more about how I analyzed these dictionaries and see a complete list, then keep reading.
What to look for in a Latin dictionary
Whenever I pick up a new dictionary, I check for a few things.
- How many word entries are in the dictionary, and how detailed are they?
- Does the dictionary use macrons, and if so, is it in a comprehensive way?
- Does the dictionary present vocabulary in a way that allows you to easily determine word stems or bases?
- Is there supplemental grammatical and/or cultural information provided?
- Is the dictionary just Latin to English, or is there an English to Latin section?
The first three questions are most important, but #4 and #5 are relevant, too. Let’s go through them one by one.
Size & Comprehensiveness
I will start with advice for beginners. You may be tempted to purchase the biggest dictionary you can find, but that would most likely be a mistake. Bigger does not necessarily equal better.
You are a Latin student, not a scholar. It doesn’t matter to you (yet, at least) if your dictionary has every known use of a word or if it cites the most famous uses in Latin literature. What you need is a dictionary that is clear and informative, but not overwhelming.
A beginning dictionary should include
- the word’s most important forms (e.g. nominative and genitive singular for nouns, principal parts for verbs, etc.)
- common irregular forms
- basic definition(s)
- basic phrases and idioms involving the word
Every single dictionary on this list will have sufficient vocabulary for beginning and most intermediate students. So if you are still in the earlier stages of your Latin journey, I advise you to pay more attention to the other four questions in choosing your dictionary.
Eventually, you will arrive at a point when smaller dictionaries don’t satisfy you anymore. Maybe more and more words you look up aren’t there. Maybe you want more details about shades of meaning.
You are arriving at the advanced level, and it is time to upgrade to a more comprehensive dictionary. This is where the number of entries really matters and where the specific content of the entries matters.
An advanced dictionary will offer far more than a simple definition. You can expect to find (in addition to everything that is in a beginning dictionary):
- etymological information
- detailed information about word variants
- nuanced divisions and subdivisions of word meaning
- phrases and idioms involving the word
- examples of the word’s usage in Latin literature (with citations)
If you are advanced, then you will want all of this extra data, but a beginner may drown in it. And that only leads to discouragement.
As for the number of entries, you will notice that the smaller dictionaries start at around 35,000 words, while the larger ones get up to 100,000 entries. Obviously advanced students will need these more exhaustive resources.
You may wonder why I give this its own heading. The answer is simple: macrons are extremely important for a full understanding of Latin pronunciation, meter, and sometimes even grammar. Click here to read more about macrons and their relevance.
Whatever your level – beginning or advanced – you will often need to look up new words. If macrons are not indicated, you will not be able to tell which vowels are long and which are short. This will make it difficult for you to pronounce the word.
Most dictionaries use macrons to a certain degree, but the problem is that some (such as Cassell’s) only use macrons in the word stem. They assume that you will know which endings are long and short. As a result, the macron information is incomplete, which can prove confusing for a beginning student.
The very best Latin dictionaries for beginners will mark all long vowels with macrons to avoid confusion.
Ease of Determining Stems
A dictionary should present the essential forms of a word in a clear way that allows you to determine its stem or base with ease. Since Latin is a highly inflected language, it is crucial that you know what you add noun, verb, adjective, and pronoun endings to.
If you are just starting out, don’t stress about the terminology. Just take my word for it: knowing stems is important.
Some dictionaries, presumably in an attempt to save space, heavily abbreviate the essential forms of a word. This can lead to major confusion.
Let’s take an example from the Collins Latin Dictionary & Grammar. Look at the following two entries:
acer, -is nt maple
ācer, -ris adj sharp
Both are clearly 3rd declension, as the –is ending on the genitive singular tells us. But what are the two words’ bases? You find a noun’s base by removing the ending from the genitive singular, but here it’s hard to determine what the genitive singular even is.
Aceris and āceris? Or acris and ācris? Who knows?
Now let’s look at these same entries in The New College Latin & English Dictionary.
ac·er -eris n maple tree; maple wood
ā·cer -cris -cre adj sharp, pointed
Here it is very clear what the additional forms are. An interpunct (·) indicates where each word is split, and as a result we can easily reconstruct the additional forms.
So, for instance, the interpunct in ac·er informs us that only the ac is repeated in the genitive singular form. Ac + eris = aceris. We now have our genitive singular form, so we can determine that the base is aceris – is = acer-.
In the second example, on the other hand, the interpunct falls after the ā. This means that only the ā is preserved the additional forms. Ā + cris = ācris and ā + cre = ācre.
This is much clearer than the mess we are given in the Collins dictionary. As you grow more and more familiar with Latin, you will get accustomed to the abbreviations that dictionaries use. But clarity is always preferable!
Often Latin dictionaries contain grammatical and/or cultural supplements. Declension and conjugation charts are a common addition, as are tables explaining Roman dating conventions and other aspects of Roman culture.
If you are a beginning student, it can be helpful to have such information easily on hand. Once you reach a more advanced level, it doesn’t matter as much – and this is why advanced dictionaries do not tend to have this supplemental information. You are expected to consult a grammar book instead.
English to Latin?
Most foreign language dictionaries will go both ways. That is, there will be a Latin to English section and also an English to Latin section. Since Latin is an ancient language, however, there tends to be a greater focus on translating from Latin rather than producing content in Latin.
As a result, students spend more time looking up Latin words they have found in texts and are less likely to look up an English word to find the Latin equivalent out of curiosity. A big exception to this is if you wish to focus on Latin composition. In this case you will find the English to Latin section handy.
Most of the beginning dictionaries include a shorter English to Latin section, while advanced resources such as Lewis & Short and the Oxford Latin Dictionary do not. If you know that you want to produce your own Latin, then make sure your chosen dictionary features an English to Latin portion!
All right, now we have covered the major things to look for in a dictionary. Now let’s get to my favorites!
READ NEXT: Best Resources to Learn Latin
Best Latin Dictionaries for Beginning and Intermediate Students
1. New College Latin & English Dictionary
The New College Latin & English Dictionary is hands down my favorite dictionary for beginning Latin students. It has won this title due to its clear, informative presentation and helpful supplements. (Plus it is cheap, typically under $10, not to mention small and light!)
This dictionary includes more than 70,000 words and phrases, all with their macrons indicated. My favorite part is the clarity surrounding abbreviations. In each entry, an interpunct (·) demonstrates where additional endings should be attached, which then allows you to find word stems with confidence.
This dictionary also features a guide to Latin pronunciation (Classical and Ecclesiastical), a guide to Latin grammar, a list of Roman numerals, and an English to Latin section. I honestly have no complaints – if you are a beginning student, this is your best option!
2. Pocket Oxford Latin Dictionary
My second choice for beginners would be the Pocket Oxford Latin Dictionary. It has clear entries with good macron use and intelligible abbreviations (although not quite as clear as the New Latin‘s excellent interpunct usage).
This dictionary has over 46,000 words and phrases (almost 25,000 less than the New College dictionary). This means that you will need to turn to another dictionary if you are reading texts with rare words.
A strength of the dictionary is its detailed supplements: pronunciation and grammar are covered, as are dates, times, weights, measures, meters, historical and mythological figures, and more. There is also an English to Latin section.
But note: despite the name “pocket”, this is not a dictionary that will fit into your pocket. It is the size of an average small book.
3. Langenscheidt Pocket Dictionary: Latin
I have a major soft spot for this dictionary, because it is the one that I used throughout high school and university. It was only at Harvard that I switched to Lewis & Short (see more about that below).
This is a true pocket dictionary: it is tiny, but still contains over 35,000 references. There is a substantial Latin-English section and a smaller English-Latin section. Macron use is excellent in the Latin-English side, and word abbreviations are clear.
Unfortunately this dictionary seems to be out of print, but you can purchase a used copy very cheap from Amazon. It is very useful! It has less entries than the New College dictionary and even than the Oxford Pocket dictionary, but its diminutive size is a major plus if you are lugging around a heavy backpack.
An Intermediate Option: Cassell’s Standard Latin Dictionary
If you grow out of the smaller dictionaries but are not quite ready to move up to the massive advanced dictionaries, then Cassell’s Standard Latin Dictionary is a good intermediate step.
Cassell’s has more entries than the last three dictionaries that I have mentioned, although unfortunately they don’t advertise precisely how many. (And I haven’t counted the entries myself, for obvious reasons!)
Entries are also more thorough, with more detailed definitions that will benefit students as they move through the intermediate level. The main thing that distinguishes Cassell’s from the other dictionaries listed in this section is the inclusion of citations from classical authors.
So in addition to telling you that abrumpō means “break off, sever”, the dictionary will note that the verb is used with the object vincula in Livy (“to sever bonds”) and ramos in Ovid (“to break off branches”).
Unfortunately, specific line numbers are not provided, so you don’t know where in Livy the quote comes from. This is different from the dictionaries in the advanced section, which will note the specific work and line number so that you can look up the reference yourself. But the citations are still helpful in giving you an idea of the flavor of Latin and common word collocations.
Cassell’s has no grammatical paradigms, but there is a brief English to Latin section as well as some quick information on Roman dates and common Latin abbreviations. The main thing that I dislike about Cassell’s is the spotty macron usage. The blurb states that Cassell’s “shows long and short vowels where not immediately apparent”, which in practice means that long vowels are often unmarked.
You can purchase on Bookshop or Amazon. Note that there are various Cassell’s Latin dictionaries; the one that I have described is Cassell’s Standard Latin Dictionary. Confusingly, it does not have “Standard” on its cover, but rather reads “Cassell’s Latin Dictionary: Latin-English / English-Latin.”
Best Latin Dictionaries for Advanced Students
Now it’s time to discuss dictionaries for advanced students. None of these dictionaries has an English to Latin section, since the focus is on careful analysis and understanding of Latin words.
Lewis and Short’s A Latin Dictionary
Lewis and Short’s A Latin Dictionary is an amazing volume. I use it every day and I love it. In my opinion it is the single most useful everyday resource for advanced Latin students and scholars.
I don’t know exactly how many entries Lewis & Short has, but it easily doubles the number in the beginning and intermediate dictionaries listed above. A strength of Lewis & Short is the breadth of the Latin covered: Archaic Latin and Late Latin are represented along with classical Latin.
My favorite part of Lewis & Short is the detailed definitions with numerous examples from Latin authors (with precise citations). I turn to Lewis & Short when I am in despair over an odd usage of a word, and often the very passage that I am reading is cited in the dictionary.
Macron use is good and words are clearly presented (although you have to ignore a lot of information about alternate forms). This is definitely a dictionary that will confuse a beginner, but it is a classicist’s dream.
I should note, however, that I typically do not use the print version, since it is large and unwieldy. Instead, I use the free Logeion app created by the University of Chicago. It contains the entirety of Lewis & Short for free, since the dictionary has long since passed into the public domain.
Oxford Latin Dictionary
The Oxford Latin Dictionary (O.L.D.) is an incredible resource for serious students and scholars. But it has a hefty price tag (usually around $400), so I would not recommend purchasing it unless you have extra money lying around.
This is an enormous book (which now usually comes in two volumes). It has over 40,000 headwords (i.e. completely distinct words) and over 100,000 senses. This is significantly more than the smaller dictionaries listed in the beginning, which were measured in entries, not headwords.
The O.L.D., like Lewis & Short, provides copious examples of each word’s use. A headword can have entries spanning multiple pages. This isn’t a dictionary that you pull out when you are reading Latin, but rather a dictionary that you turn to when you are researching a specific word’s meaning.
I myself refer to the O.L.D. occasionally, usually when I am analyzing a passage that revolves around a specific word. Then I cite the O.L.D., since it is the most authoritative source on Latin word meaning.
I do not, however, use the O.L.D. on a daily basis. Lewis & Short is my go-to dictionary.
The main complaint that scholars have with the O.L.D. is that it does not include Latin words or authors from after 200 C.E. So if you work with Late or Medieval Latin, Lewis & Short will be a better fit for you.
Choose the Best Latin Dictionary for You
If you have made it through this entire post, then I am very impressed! There are many other Latin dictionaries, too, but in this post I have confined myself to my favorites.
No dictionary (not even the Oxford Latin Dictionary) will have every single word out there. But as a beginning or intermediate Latin learner, you don’t need that. What you need is a clear, user-friendly presentation that allows you to access the beauty of the Latin language.
Once you have reached the advanced level, you are ready for larger, more detailed dictionaries. But in my personal opinion, something as large as the Oxford Latin Dictionary is overkill for everyday Latin reading.
I hope this post has helped you to decide which dictionary to purchase, and happy Latin studies! Don’t forget to take a look at my epic list of Latin-learning resources.
YOU MAY ALSO LOVE: