Database of the Month: Oxford English Dictionary

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has always been more than a place to look up definitions and pronunciations; it’s accepted widely as the authority on the history and meanings of words in the English language. The online version of the OED recently underwent a major overhaul – and through the Bentley Library’s subscription, you can explore the English language in several different ways. The OED can answer questions from “Did Shakespeare coin the word ‘bedazzle?'”* to “How many words in the English language originated in Africa?”**


You can, as always, search for a word and find in its entry: the word’s etymology, pronunciation, definition, and quotations –  including the word’s first known appearance. (For instance, the word “marketing” in the sense of “promoting a product” was first used in Harper’s Magazine in 1884.) In the new version, however, all this information is linked to the OED’s new features. You can see all the other entries that cite Harper’s or where other forms of the word “market” came from, see biographical information on cited authors, or view the word within the fully integrated Historical Thesaurus (more on that later). The new interface also makes it easier to save, email, print, and cite entries.


What really makes the new OED much more impressive than your standard-issue online dictionary, though, are the tools for exploring words. The Historical Thesaurus (published in print last year) lets you see how a concept developed in written English over time – for example, the word speech (first appearing around the year 888) preceded the word language (around 1300), which preceded the word idiom (around 1575).

Browse by “Timelines” to see when words (all, or by subject, region, or language of origin) entered the language. The timeline below shows how words developed in the area of Politics:

Browse by “Source” to see the top 1000 authors and publications that the OED’s quotations come from. Shakespeare is well-known for coining words, but when it comes to words’ first appearance in writing, Chaucer has him beat by almost 400 words.

You can also browse by “Categories” – or conduct an Advanced Search based on those categories, which include:

  • Usage (e.g., colloquial and slang, derogatory, euphemistic)
  • Region
  • Language of Origin
  • Subject (e.g., Economics, Food and cooking, Computing)
  • Part of speech

*The entry for ‘bedazzle’ identifies its first recorded use in The Taming of the Shrew (1616).

**Browse by region and the number the OED gives is 1266, including words like ‘commandeer’ and ‘jukebox.’

Connect to this database:

Please visit the Oxford English Dictionary database to explore this valuable database further, or visit our Databases page to view a complete list of our resources.


Database of the Month provides a very brief introduction to an important research database, highlighting key features of the database that you should know about. If you would like more information about this database (or any of the library’s databases) please contact the Reference Desk.  If you would like a demonstration of this database for a class, please contact our Coordinator of User Education, Elizabeth Galoozis.