The Oxford English Dictionary
Oxford is the proud home of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the definitive record of the English language from AD 1000 to the present day. It is an unsurpassed guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of 600,000 words – past and present – from across the English-speaking world.
History of the OED
The OED started life more than 150 years ago, in 1857, when the members of the Philological Society of London decided that existing English language dictionaries were incomplete and deficient, and called for a complete re-examination of the language from Anglo-Saxon times onward. In 1879, the Society made an agreement with Oxford University Press and James A. H. Murray to begin work on a New English Dictionary (as the Oxford English Dictionary was then known).
The OED today
Today’s OED offices in Oxford and New York are a hive of lexicographical activity. More than 70 editors work on updating the entire text of the dictionary. A staff of 120 scholars, research assistants, systems engineers, and project managers, plus around 200 specialist consultants and readers, work on the OED revision project. Their work is used to update the OED Online every quarter.
The OED Online also includes the Historical Thesaurus of the OED, which as well as showing synonyms for individual words in the OED, offers an entire interlinked semantic mapping of English vocabulary and a unique way of accessing the OED’s riches by topic and areas of meaning.
The OED and Oxford Dictionaries
As a historical dictionary, the OED is different from dictionaries of current English (such as the dictionaries in Oxforddictionaries.com) in which the focus is on present-day meanings. OED meanings are organized by the date they were first recorded in English, whereas dictionaries of current English focus on the most important modern meanings. You’ll still find contemporary meanings in the OED, but you’ll also find historical, obsolete, and unusual words and meanings from the last 1,000 years.
Both the OED and our current dictionaries contain a wealth of evidence from real English to show how words are used in context. In the OED each word meaning is illustrated by a set of quotations, spanning perhaps many centuries, from the earliest recorded appearance to the most recent recorded usages. On the Oxford Dictionaries site, the English language material is derived from the 2.5-billion-word Oxford English Corpus, a huge databank of 21st century English, and each word sense in the dictionary is linked to a set of sentences so you can see how people are using the language today.
The OED Appeals
The OED has welcomed contributions from the general public since the project’s very beginnings over 150 years ago. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, thousands of volunteers contributed evidence which came to form the core material of the first edition of the dictionary.
In 1879, the dictionary’s first editor, James Murray, began the tradition of publicizing ‘desiderata’ lists of words for which additional evidence was especially wanted. This tradition continued through the twentieth century, and into the last decade, when the OED joined forces with the BBC to invite television viewers to participate in an effort to discover earlier examples of words and phrases in the OED Wordhunt and associated television series, Balderdash & Piffle. The online Appeals continue the OED’s long tradition of collaborating with the public.