Oxford English Dictionary (book)

Teaching Materials

A first edition OEDThe Oxford English Dictionary (or OED) is one of the major English language dictionaries. It is published by Oxford University Press (OUP).

Apart from defining words, it also traces their history and is used not only by people wanting to learn word meaning but also by scholars and academics wanting to understand more about the English language and how it has developed over the years.

The OED claims that it will reveal

  • how a word has been used
  • where it came from
  • when it first entered the English language
  • how its meaning has changed over time and around the world

And since its publication the OED has gained a grand place in the pantheon of English. It is revered amongst academics and many consider it sacrosanct.

However, other criticize it as being elitist. They say, for example, that it will list the words coined by “literary” authors while ignoring those commonly used by everyday publications. They accuse it of being prescriptive rather than being descriptive also. But perhaps the most common criticism is that it is essentially conservative in its approach to language. It is, they say, a product of Oxford rather than the more liberal Cambridge, both of whom were approached to publish it.

The OED, meanwhile, has weathered all storms and has spawned a number of shorter, more specialized versions: The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (leaving out many older obsolete words), The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (without an historical focus) and others.

Statistics & Trivia

The OED is huge.

  • just over 300,000 main entries
  • some 600,000 words covered
  • just under 250,000 etymologies
  • around 2,500,000 usage quotes
  • roughly 59 million words in total

The longest entry is for the word, set, which is some 60,000 words long describing the 430 different meanings of the word.

And if you want to buy a set, the full second edition (20 volumes) is £750 or $995. You can also get the second edition on CDROM for around a quarter of the price.


Work began on the OED in 1857 but it was only in 1884 that it was begun to be published in dribs and drabs, a letter or so at a time, until finally, in 1928, it was published in full in 10 volumes. (The image above shows an early set.)

In the early days it was known as A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles; Founded Mainly on the Materials Collected by The Philological Society but this was changed to the catchier Oxford English Dictionary in 1933 when it was republished in 12 volumes (plus the frist of many supplements).

In 1989 the second edition was published in 20 volumes.

Finally in 2000 a third edition was begun and now, some 15 years later, it is a third of the way through. The CEO of OUP says the next edition of the OED is likely to be electronic only and no more new editions will appear in print.

On that subject, the first electronic version of the dictionary was made available in 1988 with a version online since 2000. The online version receives some 2 million hits per month.

Useful Links

Dictionaries‏‎ – a look at dictionaries

Oxford University Press‏‎ – the publishers of this great work

Descriptive vs Prescriptive Grammars – the difference between the two

Official OED Site – this is a paid subscription site to the most current OED

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