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With the rising popularity and importance of document images as an information source, information retrieval in document image databases has become a growing and challenging problem. In this paper, we propose an approach with the capability of matching partial word images to address two issues in document image retrieval: word spotting and similarity measurement between documents. First, each word image is represented by a primitive string. Then, an inexact string matching technique is utilized to measure the similarity between the two primitive strings generated from two word images. Based on the similarity, we can estimate how a word image is relevant to the other and, thereby, decide whether one is a portion of the other. To deal with various character fonts, we use a primitive string which is tolerant to serif and font differences to represent a word image. Using this technique of inexact string matching, our method is able to successfully handle the problem of heavily touching characters. Experimental results on a variety of document image databases confirm the feasibility, validity, and efficiency of our proposed approach in document image retrieval.