We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out moreJump to Main NavigationJump to Content

Guide to the Third Edition of the OED

Scope and purpose

The Oxford English Dictionary is the most comprehensive dictionary of the English language. It traces the development of English from the earliest records , and formally from 1150 AD, up to the present day. The varieties of English covered include British English, American English, Australian English, New Zealand English, the Englishes of South and South-East Asia, Southern Africa, and the Caribbean, among others.

The Oxford English Dictionary is not an arbiter of proper usage, despite its widespread reputation to the contrary. The Dictionary is intended to be descriptive, not prescriptive. In other words, its content should be viewed as an objective reflection of English language usage, not a subjective collection of usage ‘dos’ and ‘don'ts’. However, it does include information on which usages are, or have been, popularly regarded as ‘incorrect’. The Dictionary aims to cover the full spectrum of English language usage, from formal to slang, as it has evolved over time.

Editorial note at ROB v., sense 5a ‘to take (something) unlawfully; to steal’:

At present the dictionary is in the process of being revised and updated. The first revised entries were published in 2000, and further new and revised entries are now published every three months. Readers should be aware (from information available on each entry page) whether they are looking at an original, a revised, or a new entry. In the case of revised entries, the version from the earlier, second edition of the dictionary is available by way of a link from the page showing the current version.

Dictionary structure

The Oxford English Dictionary has a highly organized structure, the principal building block of which is the main entry. Most entries contain information on all of the following: spelling, pronunciation, derivation, meaning, and usage.

The usage of each word, meaning, or idiom in the Dictionary is documented through comprehensive examples drawn principally from quotations taken from printed texts of the present and the past. These quotation blocks begin with the earliest recorded occurrence of a term, and follow its development up to the modern period, unless the documentary evidence shows that the term has fallen out of use along the way. See an example entry.

This basic arrangement holds true for all entries, though some entries have a more complex structure than others. These more complex entries make interesting reading in their own right. Many users find themselves browsing through related meanings, finding fascinating information that goes far beyond what they were originally looking for.

Main entries give users the most comprehensive information about the most recent, or main form of a word, phrase, combination, abbreviation, letter of the alphabet, or other meaningful unit of the English language. The main entry is made up of two major sections, a generic or 'headword' section (which provides general information about the term) and other sections (including at least a 'sense' section, but also optionally a 'compounds' or 'special uses' section and a 'derivative' section).


Definitions and etymologies often include words displayed in capitals, and forming hyperlinks. These are cross-references to other entries where additional related information may be found. Sometimes cross-references appear in other contexts. Words are often linked to other words by meaning or origin. Tracing the paths laid by these cross-references is another way of discovering more about words and their interrelationships.

See the cross-references in the etymology of GENETIC adj. for an example of the utility of cross-references:

Further links between semantically related words may be found by following links in the Historical Thesaurus of the OED, now integrated with the dictionary.

Back to top

Headword section

The headword is the subject of a dictionary entry or article. The headword section focuses exclusively on general information about a word - its spelling, pronunciation, and grammatical forms, its origin, evolution, and other information that applies to the entire entry or article and not necessarily to a particular sense or meaning within it. It constitutes the first part of the entry.

A typical headword section:

1. Status symbol

Status symbols are visual guides that alert the dictionary user to particular characteristics of a word, meaning, or usage. For example, a status symbol will indicate whether a term is obsolete, or (in unrevised entries) whether it is a foreign word that hasn't been fully anglicized or 'naturalized' either in form or pronunciation. Status symbols appear before the sense number (or before a part of the meaning). The status symbols used in the headword section are a dagger, which indicates obsolete status, and (in unrevised entries) vertical parallel lines, which indicate non-naturalized terms. The revised entries use only the dagger indicating obsolescence, the status of a non-naturalized word being indicated in the etymology or definition text.

The obelisk or ‘dagger’ indicates visually that a word is considered obsolete. This is reinforced by a label in the entry itself:

2. Headword

The headword shows the most common modern spelling of the word. Sometimes two alternatives are given. If a word is judged obsolete the headword shows a convenient historical spelling under which to group information about the word.

A double headword, where the dictionary needs to show variation between, say, British and American English models:

3. Pronunciation

This feature shows the standard pronunciation of the headword. The pronunciation is represented by the symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet, a phonetic system widely used in teaching, linguistic research, and in dictionaries. Unrevised entries present only a British English pronunciation; revised entries also systematically provide American English pronunciations, and those of other regions where the use of the term is significant. Obsolete words are not normally provided with a pronunciation. Go to Key to the pronunciation for Third Edition entries, or Key to Second Edition pronunciation (page to be added) for earlier entries.

A routine pronunciation transcription. Use the pronunciation key if necessary to decode the symbols:

4. Part of speech

This feature explains the headword's function in a sentence; that is, whether it is used as a verb, noun, adjective, or other part of speech. Some entries have several parts of speech. In these cases the information about each of these aspects of the headword are collected together in one entry.

An entry containing multiple parts of speech (the adverb being occasional):

5. Homonym number

The homonym number is an index number, used for reference purposes, to distinguish two or more headwords with the same spelling and part of speech, but different derivations.

The homonym number distinguishes between words spelt in the same way, but with different origins (or etymologies):

LETTER n.1 derives from the French word lettre; the second noun comes from the verb to let (= to hinder); the final noun has its roots in the more common English verb to let (= to allow).

6. Label

A label is a term, usually displayed in italics, which gives brief information, usually in abbreviated form, on the context in which that term is used. For instance, a label will give a term's regional origin (e.g. the United States, Australia), the subject area from which it derives (e.g. Biology, Chemistry, Music), the status or level of language to which it belongs (e.g. slang, dialect), its grammatical function (e.g. plural, collective) and the type of meaning assigned to a word in a particular context (e.g. figurative, specific).

These labels tell us that the second adjective MURAL is a term from the vocabulary of chemistry; that it is obsolete; and that even when it was used, it was rare (in fact, that it has only been recorded in a single context):


7. Variant forms

Variant forms are the alternative spellings in which a word has been found over the centuries. Centuries of use are denoted by the first two digits of their years, e.g. 17 denotes the century 1700-1799. Old and Middle English spellings are denoted OE and ME respectively (sometimes with the prefixes 'e' (= 'early') and 'l' (= 'late')).

The variant spellings in which our word RIGMAROLE has been found are listed chronologically in this section of the entry:



8. Etymology and etymological note

The etymology is the derivation of a word. The etymology section explains how a word became part of the English language. The section includes information on the process of derivation (whether a word came into English through borrowing or was formed from elements already existing in English, etc.) and, whenever appropriate, on the foreign words involved in this process. The etymology section may also give detailed information on the meanings, history, or aspects of grammar that are relevant to a word.

Etymologies can be very simple, just noting the words (or parts of words) from which a new word is formed. Regimentalism, for example, is formed as follows:

Follow the cross-reference links in the entry to see how the constituent parts of regimentalism are formed.

Other etymologies can be slightly more complex:

At populiferous we have:

The same link shows a more detailed etymology. The longest etymology section in the dictionary is the revised one at the verb to be.

This etymology tells us that the word PHANTASM entered English from French (where fantasme and phantasme are both used), and that the French word derives from classical Latin, itself based on an older Greek word. Importantly, it shows that the Latin/Greek word had also found its way into other European Romance languages in the 13th and 14th centuries. The full entry shows that PHANTASM is first recorded in English around 1250.

Back to top

Sense section

While the headword section of an entry provides generic information about a headword, the sense section explains the headword's meaning or meanings. The sense section consists of one or more definitions, each with its paragraph of illustrative quotations, arranged chronologically. Some words, especially those that have existed for centuries, have acquired many meanings. Because of this, the sense section for some entries is quite extensive.

1. Status symbol

Status symbols are visual guides that alert the dictionary user to particular characteristics of a word, meaning, or usage. For example, the status symbol tells whether a term is obsolete, used in an irregular manner, etc. These symbols appear before the sense number (or before a part of the meaning). The status symbols used in the sense section are an obelisk or dagger, which indicates obsolete meanings, a catachrestic symbol, which indicates irregular or confused usage, and vertical parallel lines, which indicate non-naturalized or partially naturalized status (though it is not usually necessary to indicate non-naturalization of individual senses). The revised and new entries use only the dagger; irregular and non-naturalized usages are indicated in the definition text or in an etymological note.

Sense 5 of POPULAR adj. shows the 'dagger' marking obsolescence:

2. Sense number

Senses, or meanings, are ordered according to a structure resembling a family tree, so that the development of one meaning from another can be plotted. The individual meanings are numbered within this structure for ease of reference.

Here are the first four subsenses of the noun RADIATOR (without quotations displayed):

3. Label

A label is a term, usually displayed in italics, which gives brief information, usually in abbreviated form, on the context in which that term is used. For instance, a label will give a term's regional origin (e.g. U.S., Australia), the subject area from which it derives (e.g. Biology, Chemistry, Music), the status or level of language to which it belongs (e.g. slang, dialect), its grammatical function (e.g. plural, collective), and the type of meaning assigned to a word in a particular context (figurative, specific).

The labels at sense 10 of BALL n.1 identify this meaning as a medical one:

At sense 2b in this same entry, they imply that any 'common' words in the definition could be interpreted as part of the vocabulary of baseball:

4. Definition and definition note

The definition shows the meaning of the word. Definitions can be descriptive or explanatory (describing or explaining the meaning of a word), structural (explaining a word's structure in a grammatical or syntactic sense), or can consist solely of a cross-reference to another related item within the dictionary. Some words have many different meanings, which are ordered systematically to illustrate the word's development over time.

An example of a descriptive definition at MITRE n.1:

An example of an explanatory definition at EFFECT v.:

An example of a structural defintion at AND conj.1, sense 1d:

A cross-reference definition employed at PARALOGIC adj. This usage implies that the term cross-referred to is the more common or significant term:

[This is supported by the use of the label rare to classify the entry.]

Back to top

Quotation block

The paragraph of illustrative quotations contains a selection of authentic examples of usage illustrating a definition. The quotations document the history of a term from its earliest recorded usage, and can be extremely helpful tools for clarifying grammatical and syntactic aspects of a definition. Quotations are selected on a number of criteria, including genre and register of typical sources, geographical spread of evidence, etc., to illustrate (where appropriate) the variety of contexts in which a term occurs. In almost all cases the quotations published are a selection of those available.

The following are the main components of each quotation cited within quotation blocks:

1. Date of publication

The date of publication is placed at the head of each quotation. For older texts, especially for those dating from before the invention of printing, this date may be a manuscript date or the date at which the text is thought to have been composed. In the case of posthumously published books, the date normally given is that of the author's death (preceded by a = 'ante').

The first quotation date below indicates that the book cited was published in 1859:

This quotation (as the title suggests) was first published after Samuel Butler's death:

2. Author

The author of a quotation is displayed in capitals. Further information may be found by clicking on adjacent work title.

3. Title

The title of the quoted text cited is displayed in italic type. The title is often presented in an abbreviated style. Further information may be found by clicking on the title.

4. Text of quotation

The text of a quotation is the quotation as it appears in the source cited, and is normally preceded by its location in the source (chapter, page, etc.). Unless otherwise stated, the reference is typically to the source's first edition. Information on other editions used may be found in the dictionary's bibliography.

In this case the edition used is that of 1877:

Back to top

Compound or Special Uses section

A compound occurs when simple words are joined and function as a single grammatical unit (e.g. sea chest, sea-gull, seafood). Compounds are frequently collected together in a section or group of sections at or near the end of an entry. They are followed by a quotation block in which examples of each compound are presented in alphabetical order of the compound. Some major compounds are entered as headwords in their own right. 'Special uses' of an adjective are not grammatically compounds, but share a similar organizational structure within the dictionary.

The noun ROCK n.1 has is one of the OED's entries with a very large number of compounds. Here are how two adjacent ones are displayed. They are structured like main entries in miniature, with many of the same features and structure.

Back to top

Derivative section

Derivatives are words formed from the headword by the addition of a suffix (for example, enshrined at the entry for enshrine). These are often entered as the final section of an entry. Many derivatives are included as headwords in their own right. They are followed by a quotation block illustrating examples of usage.

Derivatives, following the model of Compounds, are structured like min-main entries, but are placed at the foot of the entry in which they are nested:

Back to top

Special types of main entries

1. Letters of the alphabet

Each letter of the alphabet is entered in the Dictionary as a headword in its own right. These headwords occur at the start of the range of entries beginning with the letter.

The entries for alphabet letters describe in detail the history and ‘shape’ of the letter in English and in related alphabets, describe points of interest in its use, and document the ways it has been pronounced in English over the centuries.

Entries for letters of the alphabet also include many initialisms and documentary evidence for their use, and explain the letter as a technical symbol and in abbreviations.

2. Initialisms, acronyms, abbreviations

Initialisms are sequences of letters representing the initial letters of the expression they stand for (e.g. USA, MP, OED). Sometimes initialisms are pronounced as words (e.g. NATO, UNESCO), in which case they are called acronyms. Abbreviations are shortened forms of longer words, which are used as words in their own right (e.g. ‘pic’ for ‘picture’).

In this dictionary many initialisms and acronyms are found under initial-letter entries (e.g. HQ at the entry for H). In some cases they are entered in the dictionary as headwords. Abbreviations are normally entered as headwords.

A standard initialisms style, with the entry nested within the entry for its initial letter:

3. Affixes and combining forms

Affixes are word-forming elements such as ‘pro-’, ‘re-’, and ‘-ful’ which are added to the beginning or end (occasionally the middle) of words to form new words. Combining forms are generally words which occur in a slightly altered form when used to introduce longer compound words (such as ‘medico-’ for ‘medical’). The dictionary often treats the history of these terms under their own headwords. The words which they help to create are then either entered under the relevant affix or combining-form entry, or are given headword status in their own right.

The beginning of a combining-form entry. Further psycho- words are entered later in the entry. Major words formed with psycho- are entered as main entries (e.g. psychology, psychotherapy):

4. Proper names

Proper names are not systematically covered by the dictionary, though many are entered because the terms themselves are used in extended or allusive meanings, or because they are in some way culturally significant.

5. Erroneous, spurious, or ghost words

Occasionally ‘ghost’ words find their way into print and into dictionaries. Typically these are the result of misreadings of manuscripts or of typographical errors by printers. The dictionary includes a number of these entries, indicating that the words have been used incorrectly in former editions of texts or have otherwise achieved some spurious existence. They do not necessarily follow the regular dictionary structure (typically in not being provided with a formal etymology).

'One-eared' (= having only one ear) is entered as adj.1 in the dictionary, and is attested from the early seventeenth century. This entry illustrates the same form, but apparently as a misreading of one-yeared.

6. Lengthy entries

The length of each entry is normally determined by the number of meanings a word has accumulated during its history. Some words - often rather short ones - have developed a vast range of meanings, and this results in some very lengthy entries. The entry in the dictionary which has the most senses is the word set as a verb, which (in its unrevised state) has some 580 meanings and sub-meanings (including those of phrasal idioms nested within the same entry). The longest entry in terms of text characters is put (the verb), but this contains a mere 430 subsenses.

Sense 122a of SET v.1, one of many long-obsolete meanings:

Back to top