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Frequently asked questions

Not like other dictionaries: a brief introduction to the OED

The OED is not just a very large dictionary: it is also a historical dictionary, the most complete record of the English language ever assembled. It traces a word from its beginnings (which may be in Old or Middle English) to the present, showing the varied and changing ways in which it has been used and illustrating the changes with quotations which add to the historical and linguistic record. This can mean that the first sense shown is long obsolete, and that the modern use falls much later in the entry.

The first edition of the dictionary was published in parts between 1884 and 1928, with the title A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles. A ten-volume edition appeared in 1928. It was reissued in twelve volumes plus one supplementary volume in 1933, when the title was changed to The Oxford English Dictionary. The language did not cease to change and grow, and a further four volumes of OED Supplement were published between 1972 and 1986. All this material was amalgamated to produce the twenty-volume second edition in 1989.

Since March 2000 the dictionary has been an online publication, to which we add revised and new entries four times a year. So far we have revised everything from M to R, as well as small but significant ranges elsewhere in the alphabet. This amounts to over a quarter of the entire text. The old text of a revised entry remains available at the click of a mouse, and the Second Edition of the dictionary (1989) remains in print.

The most challenging entries to write are those for important verbs like make and put, with their many senses, subsenses, and phrasal forms. There are huge quantities of information to be sifted and organized into a coherent historical structure. An entry for a new word may be comparatively simple, but still rests on an extensive body of research and evaluation.

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Some questions often asked by users of OED Online

How can I best contribute to the dictionary?

We are always pleased to receive details of

  • antedatings of words and senses;
  • variant forms not currently recorded;
  • new words and new senses of existing words.

The information about a contribution should always include

  • date of publication;
  • author (of a book, but not a newspaper or journal article);
  • title of the work, with chapter and page reference;
  • a quotation long enough to show how the word is being used.

We continue to prefer evidence drawn from print publications.

In general we do not need

  • postdatings for first edition entries (we usually have evidence on file);
  • additional citations for revised entries;
  • quotations from famous authors (we can gather these from databases).

Contribute to the OED

Why are there no OED entries for people, places, or events?

In common with most British dictionaries, the OED has never included entries for names, except where the name has acquired an extended or allusive sense: wellington boot, Honiton lace, Armageddon. The names of fictional characters or beings are only included if there is evidence of extended use: Svengali, munchkin. On the other hand, the familiarity of many eponyms has concealed their origin in personal names: boycott, mackintosh.

Why does the OED spell verbs such as organize and recognize in this way?

The suffix -ize comes ultimately from the Greek verb stem -izein. In both English and French, many words with this ending have been adopted (usually via Latin), and many more have been invented by adding the suffix to existing words. In modern French the verb stem has become -iser, and this may have encouraged the use of -ise in English, especially in verbs that have reached English via French. The -ise spelling of verbs is now very common in British use, and Oxford dictionaries published in the UK generally show both forms where they are in use, but give -ize first as it reflects both the origin and the pronunciation more closely, while indicating that -ise is an allowable variant. Usage varies across the English-speaking world, so it is important to record both spellings where they exist. There are a number of verbs with only one accepted spelling – advise and capsize, for example. This is not just perverse: they have different etymologies. The important thing is that people should be consistent in the form they use in a given document.

How should I cite the OED Online?

By popular request, there is now a cite button on each page which you can click to be shown complete citations for the entry in MLA and Chicago styles. There are also tools to export to a range of bibliography software.

Why does the OED hyphenate some compounds and not others?

In general, the forms shown are based on evidence available to the editors at the time the entry was prepared. If it is a first edition entry, that evidence may lie more than a century in the past, and use of the hyphen has greatly decreased over the past century. The process can often be observed in the illustrative quotations, even in an old entry such as today, which in the past was normally written with a hyphen or as two separate words. Forms shown in revised entries reflect modern evidence based on OED's quotation files and text corpora.

Why are there no recent illustrative quotations for many words in common use?

If an entry goes back to the first edition of the OED (1884-1928) the quotation evidence will reflect the material available to the editors at the time of writing, and can be surprisingly close to the date of publication. Extra evidence was added to some entries during work on the OED Supplement (published 1972-86), but many entries written for the Supplement are now also in need of updating. As we revise the text we always add later evidence when it is available. If it is not, we may need to consider adding an Obsolete label. We do this when we have failed to find usage evidence later than 1900. Contributors have been sending us postdatings for over a century now, and all this material is in our files ready for use by the revisers.

I've made up a word. Please add it to the OED.

Many correspondents seem to regard getting a word into ‘the dictionary’ as a sure route to fame and even fortune. They are often disappointed to hear that the process of adding any new word, or a new sense of an existing word, is long and painstaking, and depends on the accumulation of a large body of published (preferably printed) citations showing the word in actual use over a period of at least ten years. Once a word is added to the OED it is never removed; OED provides a permanent record of its place in the language. The idea is that a puzzled reader encountering an unfamiliar word in, say, a 1920s novel, will be able to find the word in the OED even if it has been little used for the past fifty years. Our smaller dictionaries of current English, such as the Oxford Dictionary of English and the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, tend to include new vocabulary more rapidly. These dictionaries are designed to be as up to date as possible, and are frequently revised, but their new entries are usually based on the same solid body of evidence.

What is a ‘non-word’?

It is something of a misnomer to call words not yet in the OED ‘non-words’. They are simply words that we have not included up to this point because we have not yet seen sufficient evidence of their usage. Some of these words may appear in other dictionaries which deal with current English, and which do not have an obligation to illustrate usage. The OED is unique, however, not only in never removing a word once it has been included, but also because we illustrate each entry with real evidence taken from a very wide range of print sources.

How does a word qualify for inclusion in the OED?

The OED requires several independent examples of the word being used, and also evidence that the word has been in use for a reasonable amount of time. The exact time-span and number of examples may vary: for instance, one word may be included on the evidence of only a few examples, spread out over a long period of time, while another may gather momentum very quickly, resulting in a wide range of evidence in a shorter space of time. We also look for the word to reach a level of general currency where it is unselfconsciously used with the expectation of being understood: that is, we look for examples of uses of a word that are not immediately followed by an explanation of its meaning for the benefit of the reader. We have a large range of words under constant review, and as items are assessed for inclusion in the dictionary, words which have not yet accumulated enough evidence are kept on file, so that we can refer back to them if further evidence comes to light.

How can I send evidence of a new word or sense to the OED?

We can assess examples of new words and senses that are not illustrated in the OED, providing the information is sent through the OED Online website, in the appropriate form. This captures the quotation and its accompanying citation details, and transmits the information in a format that our editing system can interpret, which therefore enables our editors to make use of the evidence.

How can I comment on the OED text?

The OED welcomes feedback on its editorial content. For this and all other enquiries, please go to the Contact us page.

Does my public library subscribe to the OED?

Many public libraries do subscribe to the OED, including virtually all in the UK. Click here for more info.

What's the difference between the OED and Oxford Dictionaries Online?

The OED and the dictionaries in ODO are themselves very different. While ODO focuses on the current language and practical usage, the OED shows how words and meanings have changed over time. Click here for more information.

The OED contains links to Oxford Dictionaries Online. Do I need a subscription to this resource in order to use these links?

No, all links will take you through to the free dictionary.

Why aren’t the Historical Thesaurus categories in alphabetical order?

The order of subcategories is usually intended to reflect a perceived logical order or order of significance - this order can appear somewhat arbitrary on first impression. For example, many sets of subcategories include ‘other types’ or ‘miscellaneous kinds’, which comes at the end of the set. If strictly alphabetized, these would come in the middle of the list, which would look even stranger.

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