Skokie Public Library's Guide to...
OED (Oxford English Dictionary) Online

OED Online is the online version of the the Oxford English Dictionary, a recognized and respected guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of over half a million words, both present and past.  It traces the usage of words through quotations from a wide range of international English language sources, from classic literature and specialist periodicals to film scripts and cookery books.

OED Online is an historical dictionary, and its entry structure is very different from that of a dictionary of current English.  In dictionaries of current English, in which only present-day definitions are covered,  the most common meanings are described first. For each word in the OED, both online and in print, the various groupings of meanings are dealt with in chronological order according to the quotation evidence.

Also, the OED is a descriptive dictionary: it describes how words are used in speech and literature and how they have been used historically.  Many dictionaries are prescriptive: they define words for us to use in our speech and literature. OED Online is updated quarterly.

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Why Use the OED Online?

The Oxford English Dictionary is the accepted authority on the evolution of the English language over the last millennium; it is a history of the language in twenty volumes and supplements.  OED Online offers easy access to all twenty volumes of the 1989 edition, the three Additions volumes, and draft material from the completely updated third edition, which is in progress.  

OED Online can be used to find the definition or etymology of a word, to find quotations that include particular words or phrases, perhaps by a specific author, and to conduct many more complex searches.  The following are examples of the kinds of questions that can be answered using OED Online:

  • When did the term "email" first come into use?
  • We're reading Hamlet in school and there are a lot of words that I don't understand.  For instance, what's a bodkin, and why would anyone seek quietus with it?
  • Are there any quotations by Mark Twain in the OED Online?


Find Word Search

The Find Word search looks for main dictionary entries, single words such as alphabet, music, or trace. It also looks for subordinate entries such as the phrase in alphabet, or compounds such as alphabet book. The search form is located at the top-right of the browser window; simply type in the word you are interested in.

Simple Search

Clicking on the Simple search image option on the bottom of each screen will bring up a search form on the left side of the screen.  Simply type in the word or phrase you are interested in, and choose whether you wish to search the full text of the dictionary, definitions only, quotation text, or other search option.

Advanced Search

Choosing the Advanced search image option on the bottom of each screen will allow you to use Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT) when formulating your search.  You may search dictionary entries only or quotations only, search for particular parts of speech (nouns, verbs, and so on), do proximity searching, and other advanced options.

Tips for Effective Searching

  • Searches in OED Online ignore hyphens and do not distinguish hyphens and spaces: searching for the term email will return entries for e mail, e-mail, and email.
  • Proximity searching can help you search for two words that are near each other, such as "poetic license" or "bread and butter."  Access proximity searching when using the Simple search image by clicking on the link for More Options.
  • Make your search more flexible by using wildcards.  OED Online recognizes two wildcards: the asterisk (*) and the question mark (?).  The asterisk (*) represents the occurrence of any number of characters, or no characters: searching c*t will retrieve cat, cabalist, civil servant, commencement, cut, and so on.

Special Features

New Words and Quarterly Updates

The main search screen contains links to OED Online's latest updates. These include new words as well as updated entries. 

Lost for Words?

This feature displays a different randomly chosen word each time you click on the Entrance image link.  This allows you to look at a new sample entry every time you choose to; it's a great vocabulary builder.


OED Online has excellent in-context Help image accessible on every page. 

Handling Your Results

To manage search results

  • Entering a word or phrase in the Find Word search box will typically bring back a number of results, as a word might have several different meanings or belong to more than one part of speech.  Click on the underlined work to open the entry.
  • Using the Simple search image or the Advanced search image will somewhat complicate your result list.  Any kind of full text search will allow you to choose to view the entry or the match from the text of the entry.

To print, email, or save

  • Choose the Print image button at the bottom of each page to print an entry or the current page of results.
  • You may email a link to an entry to yourself or to anyone else, whether or not they subscribe to OED Online.  Choose the Mail image  button at the bottom of each page.  The link will remain active for three days.
  • To save an entry, choose the Print image button to reformat the page.  Then use your Save As feature in the File menu of your browser to save the entry to a file or a disk.

Other Resources

The OED Online is a truly unique resource, just as its print counterpart is without parallel.  The following are other resources which may help you find definitions of words or quotations.


  • eLibrary provides easy access to a vast array of general information resources, as well as two dictionaries.
  • World Book Online is an excellent encyclopedia resource, and also includes the World Book Dictionary.

In addition, librarians at Skokie Public Library have selected and compiled the most useful databases and websites for dictionary definitions.  Please check the Dictionaries, Grammar, and Usage category of our Research section for more resources.


  • Columbia Granger's Poetry is an index to over 90,000 poems in anthologies, and a good place to start your research on quotations.

Librarians at Skokie Public Library have also selected and compiled the most useful databases and websites for looking up quotations.  Please check the Quotations and Poetry category of our Research section for more resources.