Oxford English Dictionary


“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


Brief History 

Creation of the OED began in 1857.


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 Fact:  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.


The first edition was published serially in twelve volumes and was completed 71 years later in 1928.  The dictionary was out-of-date by the time it was finished and was reissued with a supplement in 1933.


Four volume supplement to OED published between 1972 and 1986.


2nd edition of the OED appeared in 1989.


Author: Burchfield, Robert (1923-    )

Publisher: Hill and Wang (New York, 1991). 202  pp.

Type of work: essays on linguistics

      A collection of essays celebrating the dynamic features of English grammar and vocabulary and illustrating how dictionaries become controversial records of linguistic change.

The OED is now also available on-line at http://www.oed.com/.



  • 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



Words To Understand


Lexicography—the vocabulary of a particular language; the writing or compiling of dictionaries


Etymology—The study of historical linguistic change especially as applied to individual words; an account of the history of a particular word


 Using the Oxford English Dictionary


Each definition in the OED contains


  1. The Identification
  2. The Etymology
  3. The Signification (Meaning)
  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


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

§         Derivation

§         Teutonic (Germanic) history

§         Latin, or other romance language adaptation


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)


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  “General Explanations” in Volume A, or visit http://www.oed.com 


Some of the material on this page came from:

Guide to the Oxford English Dictionary
Spartanburg Technical College Library