Skip to Main Content

English Language & Literature

Resources for conducting literary research on English & American Literatures.

The Significance of The Oxford English Dictionary (OED)

Oxford English DictionaryThe Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is the guide to the meaning, history, pronunciation, and variant spellings of words -- present and past -- from across the English-speaking world.  

The OED gives useful information about the history of each word: where it came from, who first used it in each sense, which important writers have used it in which senses, when senses have become obsolete, and so on. The OED is an invaluable research tool for English scholars, and you should get into the habit of using it every time you close read.  Using the OED can help you unlock deeper meaning in the literary texts you study.

How to Find Definitions in the OED

1. Access The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) (you can find it by searching the database name in Library Search).  

2. Enter your search word in the search box and select "Go."

OED search box


3. Review your quick search results, noting the various versions and parts of speech (e.g. noun, adjective, verb, etc.) of the word. Select the version of the word you need.


OED quick search results

4. Review the dictionary entry. Included with the definition will be listings of when and where the word was used historically, usually beginning with the earliest recorded use.


 OED definition entry

Keep in mind that each entry usually contains more than one definition, so be sure to scroll down to see them all. Print, Save, Email, or Cite the entries and definitions you find.

Print, Save, Email options


 TIP: The names of the works in which the word appeared are linked to additional information. Select the links to view complete title and edition information, plus available biographical information about the author.


OED entry additional information


How to Interpret OED Entries

  • Note the word's etymology. What is the word's language of origin? Latin, Saxon, Greek, French, etc.?
  • Note the word's definitions. How many different ways has the word been defined over time? Does the word appear to have had a complicated history? According to the date your literary text was published, how many definitions would have been available to the text's author? Note all definitions -- even conflicting ones -- that were in use at the time of your literary text's publication. How do some of these other definitions affect your sense of what the word or passage in your literary text could mean?
  • Note the word's historical usage. What is the earliest known usage of the word? How has the spelling changed over time? Which usages are familiar to you? Which usages by canonical authors or well-known literary texts might merit your attention? Keep in mind that some usages might have become popular after your literary text was published. Are there any other words or allusions you need to look up to close read the text?