Oh, no! You used a catachresis!

The Oxford English Dictionary is more than a dictionary – it is more like a history of the English language. Save $1000 by using our online version! With more than 600,000 words and millions of quotations, it can show you how words have changed meaning over time or how many were introduced by Shakespeare. Learn some advanced tips and tricks and become a power user.

Generous, majestic, lonely, laughable. These are all words introduced into English by the Immortal Bard himself, Shakespeare. How many English words are from this one person? What are they? To answer this with authority, there is only one place to go - the Oxford English Dictionary. Save $1000 and find the OED on our website under Research Resources in Dictionaries & Encyclopedias or under Databases A-Z.

The online version of this unique and massive endeavor (created over 150 years) contains around 600,000 words and 3,000,000 quotations from a thousand years of the English language. How have word meanings and spellings changed over the centuries? The OED is where you go to find out. More than a dictionary, it describes the evolution of English using examples and the earliest known sources in literature from Beowulf to the LA Times. The online version includes the full text of the Second Edition of the OED, the Historical Thesaurus of the OED and numerous articles on aspects of English, individual words, the history of the OED, and more. The online version is updated quarterly with new words and senses and revisions of existing entries.

Begin by opening the licensed database on our website. You can begin a search immediately by typing in your word into the quick Search box and hitting enter. Let's say you picked "perspicacity." The word is described as a noun and the pronunciation is listed first, listing British and English pronunciations. Here is a key to the OED's pronunciation guides. Other spelling forms from the 15th and 16th centuries are given and then we have the etymology. The history of the word's meanings is given back to the Middle French usage from 1444 and the Latin root from the 4th century. Similar words are listed and placing the mouse over them gives brief definitions. Each sense of the word's meanings are defined and examples of usage are given back to the 16th century. Click on the link to the Thesaurus and you will get a list of synonyms and how the word has been categorized by OED. In this case, perspicacity is placed in "the mind » mental capacity » understanding, intellect » intelligence, cleverness » sharpness, shrewdness, insight » [noun] » clarity."

That was a simple entry. Let's try the word "nice" as an adjective and adverb. Skip the noun forms for this example and see a more complex entry. This word has dramatically changed meaning over the centuries from "foolish or silly" to "pleasing." There are also examples of how it is used in phrases (e.g. "make nice") and other special uses. And it is a long entry. If you were to print it, you would need 25 pages. There is no way to edit the entry for printing purposes (although you can hide quotations) but you can cut and paste parts into a document or you can email it to yourself or save it to a disc to trim as needed later.

Let's take a look at what Advanced Search can do for us. The dropdown menu next to the search field allows you to choose whether you want to search the full text of all of the entries (worth a try if the quick search didn't work) or be more specific. For instance, crossword puzzlers can search for words by limiting their search to the definitions in entries.

How many English words have their origin in Mongolian? (Answer: not many.) Find this by limiting the search to language (under Etymology). Now, how might we find the words given to us by Shakespeare? Search for Shakespeare and limit the search to "First Quotation." Watch out, though. You can search for words that were in quotations from particular titles, like Tom Sawyer, by limiting the search to Quotation Title but that does not mean that the words were used in that title first.

Below the search fields are what are called "filters." You can use them to further limit your search. Did the word have its origin from a particular subject area? Or from a certain region of the world? You can browse the different kinds of subjects in each filter. Yes, there's Mongolian, under "Central & East Asian > Altaic" by browsing Language of Origin. You can also limit the search to Date of Entry. How many words have officially entered the language since 1950? Put 1950- in the Date of Entry field. (Answer: a lot.)

You can search phrases by using the "Option for near/not near." Search for "humble pie" by checking the box labeled "ordered" (to search the words in that order), picking "one word" in the Option dropdown and choosing "near" in the boolean dropdown next to the search field. If you don't find it, check to see if you need to click on the reset button next to the red search button to clear out old filter settings. You can also search for phrases by placing the words in quotation marks but be careful. Using quotation marks won't find "humble pie."

Another feature guaranteed to make crossword puzzles easier is the use of wildcards. Single characters can be represented by ?, for example, wildc?rd. For multiple characters (or none) you can use *. So, what are those words in English that end in -gry? Search *gry.

For those words that have letters that aren't part of the standard keyboard, you will find a keyboard icon below the search fields that offer all of the extra letters you might need.

You may also notice a number of symbols in the entries. These are all explained in the key to symbols and other conventions. Symbols and other notations may be used to indicate that a word is obsolete or that it first appeared in a given century. A quick review of the key will help with the more complicated entries.

Check out the OED. You wouldn't want to be guilty of catachresis.

By the way, Shakespeare contributed 1,734 words to the English language.

Written by Steve on December 26, 2012


Robin F. on January 4, 2013


Fascinating! Thank you, Steve.

Elaine C. on January 4, 2013


Wow! I knew the OED was a great resource, but I had no ideal all the ways to use the online version. Thanks for the great instructions!

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