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Research Guide: Oxford English Dictionary (OED)

"The aim of this dictionary is to present in alphabetical series the words that have formed the English vocabulary from the time of the earliest records down to the present day, with all the relevant facts concerning their form, sense-history, pronunciation, and etymology." Preface, Oxford English Dictionary


  • Authoritative source on the evolution of the English language -- beginning in 1150
    • Provides history, meaning, and pronunciation of words
    • Provides examples of words used in context, from the first recorded occurrence to the present day
  • Depth of coverage (12 volumes plus supplements)
    • Defines half a million words and phrases
    • Contains 2.5 million illustrative quotations
    • Lists variant word spellings from different periods of a word’s history
    • Includes international words incorporated into the English language

Vocabulary to Understand

the vocabulary of a particular language; the writing or compiling of dictionaries
The study of historical linguistic change especially as applied to individual words; an account of the history of a particular word

Brief History

Creation of the OED began in 1857 and was completed 71 years later in 1928. James Murray was one of the driving forces behind the completion of the OED, a project which depended on hundreds of volunteer readers throughout the English-speaking world.

Fun Facts

A book by Simon Winchester called, "The Professor and the Madman, A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary," brings to light the story of one of the OED's most prolific contributors. William Minor, an American Civil War veteran and resident of the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum contributed over 10,000 words to the OED over a two decade span. The book covers the history of Minor's life and his work on the OED, and the relationship which developed between James Murray and William Minor.

Using the Oxford English Dictionary

Each definition in the OED contains:

  1. The Identification
  2. The Etymology
  3. The Signification
  4. The Illustrative Quotations

The Identification

  • Typical spelling of word
  • Words believed to be obsolete
  • The pronunciation
  • Part of speech, and specific uses of a word (i.e. in music... in botany...)
  • Status of a word-obsolete, archaic, colloquial, dialectal, rare...
  • Earliest form and appearance of word
  • Note: earliest sense of a word appears first

The Etymology: form history of a word (usually in brackets [ ] )

  • Derivation
  • Teutonic (Germanic) history
  • Latin, or other romance language adaptations

The Signification: historical significance of word

  • Historical explanations of word meanings and changes to those meanings (in outline format beginning with numbers, then letters)

Illustrative Quotations

  • Illustrate the forms and uses of words showing the earliest uses (first appearance of a word)


Note: To effectively read a word definition in the OED you must make use of "The Key to the Pronunciation" and the "List of Abbreviations, Signs, Etc." at the beginning of each volume.

For more information see the "General Explanations" section in Volume A, or visit

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