Oxford English Dictionary (OED)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

The Oxford English Dictionary
The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press, 1989).


The Oxford English Dictionary is the largest and most comprehensive dictionary of the English language, with each word traced back to its first recorded appearance. Popularly known as the OED.

The first complete edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published by Oxford University Press in 1928. The OED has been available online since March 2000.

See the observations below. Also see:


  • "What distinguishes the Oxford English Dictionary is not merely its size, but the fact that it aims to record every English word, present and past, and to give for each a full historical treatment, tracing the word from its first appearance until the present day with all variations in form, meaning, and use. Furthermore, the dictionary illustrates the history of each word with abundant quotations showing the word in context throughout its history. Quotations are often the most informative and useful part of a word's treatment, and there are over 3,000,000 of them."
    (John Algeo and Carmen Acevedo Butcher, The Origins and Development of the English Language, 7th ed. Cengage, 2013)
  • Publishing History of the OED
    "It took more than seventy years to create the twelve tombstone-size volumes that made up the first edition of what was to become the great Oxford English Dictionary. This heroic, royally dedicated literary masterpiece--which was first called the New English Dictionary, but eventually became the Oxford ditto, and thenceforward was known familiarly by its initials as the OED--was completed in 1928; over the following years there were five supplements and then, half a century later, a second edition that integrated the first and all the subsequent supplementary volumes into one new twenty-volume whole. The book remains in all senses a truly monumental work--and with very little serious argument is still regarded as a paragon, the most definitive of all guides to the language that, for good or ill, has become the lingua franca of the civilized modern world. . . .

    "The OED's guiding principle, the one that has set it apart from most other dictionaries, is its rigorous dependence on gathering quotations from published or otherwise recorded uses of English and using them to illustrate the use of the sense of every single word in the language."
    (Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. HarperCollins, 1998)
  • James Murray's Principles
    "'I wanted to see an ideal Dictionary & to show what I meant by one,' [Scottish lexicographer] James Murray wrote to the politician James Bryce in 1903, reflecting in detail upon his editorship of the work which we now know as the OED. The original title of the dictionary--and that which appeared on the individual fascicles throughout the first edition--gives a clearer picture of the lexicographical departures in which Murray and his co-editors were then engaged. A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, its title pages announced, stressing alike the originality and the historicism which formed a salient part of the ideals to which Murray referred. . . .

    "It was, James Murray wrote in 1900, the 'scientific spirit' of the nineteenth century which had both 'called for and rendered possible the Oxford English Dictionary.' Science was in this sense made central to the OED's achievements and execution, as is evident in the tenor and content of its entries and explicitly stated on its title pages ('edited by James A.H. Murray . . . With the Assistance of many Scholars and Men of Science'). . . .

    "While he resolutely insisted on the validity of usage, and the duty of a descriptive dictionary to record and observe this ('The first aim of the dictionary is to exhibit the actual variety of usage,' as the Preface to Ant-Batten declared), popular perceptions of the role of both lexicographer and lexicography could be very different. . . .

    "'Some people wear turned-down collars, & some wear stand-up collars; why should they not? Is not speech as free as dress, when the pronunciations are equally well-grounded?' [Murray] declared in [a] letter on this subject. The integrity of descriptivism was, as here, resolutely maintained."
    (Lynda Mugglestone, Lost for Words: The Hidden History of the Oxford English Dictionary. Yale University Press, 2005)
  • The Supplements
    "Under the title A Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary (OEDS) four volumes were published in 1972, 1976, 1981, and 1986. They incorporate and replace the 1933 Supplement and contain new words adopted into the language since the publication of the OED."
    (Leonhard Lipka, English Lexicology: Lexical Structure, Word Semantics and Word Formation. Gunter Narr Verlag, 2002)
  • Second and Third Editions
    "[I]n 1989, the publishers brought out a 'second edition' of the OED: no revision of the original work, which was by now badly needed, but instead a merging together of the earlier Dictionary with [editor Robert] Burchfield's four volumes of Supplement, a move that capitalized on the OED's market value (since libraries replaced their existing copies), protected its original copyright, but added little that was new. Despite its apparently unadventurous lexicographical content, however, this composite edition heralded an enormous change in Oxford dictionary-making. It had been produced by committing its separate components to electronic tape, enabling their subsequent transference first to CD-Rom and then online, a form searchable by techniques that have revolutionized users' access to the riches within. . . . In 1993 [Oxford University Press] announced the start of a new, third edition, which would for the first time in its history attempt a full revision and rewriting of all its previously published material, from the late decades of the nineteenth century to the present day . . .."
    (Charlotte Brewer, Treasure-House of the Language: The Living OED. Yale University Press, 2007)