OED Online

The most up-to-date version of the OED is the complicatedly composite version of the Dictionary which can be browsed and searched at www.oed.com, a subscription site which is freely available to many UK users via public libraries (see ‘Accessing the OED’ at https://public.oed.com/help/).1

This version is a mixture of unrevised entries carried over (with bibliographical and other changes) from OED2, and entirely new or revised entries from OED3. The OED3 entries on OED Online represent the most authoritative historical lexicographical scholarship on the English language currently available (click through to OED3 for our separate page). But many of the other entries on OED Online have been little changed since the first edition of 1884-1928, and in some cases still preserve definitions long discarded by other modern dictionaries. For example, OED’s definition of slang, still unrevised as of August 2018, as ‘the special vocabulary used by any set of persons of a low or disreputable character; language of a low and vulgar type’, is one that no self-respecting modern dictionary would include today.

No information is currently available on the progress of the new edition; the last official statement was made in the December 2011 release, which announced that ‘the running total [of new and revised entries] stands at 102,133 entries (or 37% of the dictionary entries on OED Online).’2 The proportion of revised to unrevised material changes slightly every quarter as the lexicographers upload a new tranche of revisions to the website.

As already mentioned, to understand the nature and content of this edition one needs to know something of its history. For information on interpreting the results of OED Online searches, see Re-launched OED Online. For previous versions and editions of OED, go to Which edition contains what?

Beginnings and start of OED3

Work on OED3 began in the 1990s, under the chief editorship of John Simpson (who had previously worked under R. W. Burchfield on the Supplement, completed 1986, and who had subsequently co-compiled the 1989 OED2). The project was a natural development of the plans behind digitalizing the OED which had got underway in the 1980s: once the text of the OED was in electronic form, it would be far easier to update it and to prepare the Dictionary for making the most of the developments in information technology which OUP presciently envisaged were on the horizon (for more information, see Brewer 2007b chapter 8).

The website OED Online was launched in 2000, publishing the first series of revisions of OED entries – which in most cases had not been changed since their original publication in OED1, i.e. between 72 and 116 years previously – in a new version of the Dictionary which could be electronically searched. Alongside this version the website also presented an online version of OED2.

These parallel forms of OED could be examined side by side by users wanting to identify and observe the characteristics of the revised entries. Using identical search tools in each case, one could compare the treatment of different authors, sources, periods etc. and come to a better understanding of the ways in which OED had represented the language at the different stages in its history.

Such analyses and comparisons, possible up until December 2010, formed the basis of the Examining the OED project, allowing us to identify and analyse significant features of the original OED, e.g. its under-treatment of the 18th century, its high number of quotations from canonical literary sources, its comparative lack of interest in female-authored quotation sources, and so on. They also enabled commentary on the progress of OED3.

In addition, the original OED Online website carried clear information on which entries were revised when. The revising lexicographers started with the letter M and worked their way onwards through the alphabet to ryvita (reached December 2010), releasing new batches of entries every quarter while at the same time publishing entries for completely new words as they became available (i.e., beginning with any letter of the alphabet). Between March 2008 and December 2010, the revisers also worked outside the letter-range M-R, publishing short sequences of revised entries from across the alphabet. All these stages were listed in a separate series of pages on the website (now at https://public.oed.com/updates/ [accessed July 2019]).

Re-launched version of OED Online in 2010

In December 2010, alphabetically sequential revision was abandoned, and OED Online was re-launched on a new electronic platform. The separate version of OED2 has been removed and the website no longer provides lists of and information on revised entries. These changes make it virtually impossible for users to track the progress of the revision or analyse the different stages and characteristics of OED’s history. (See pages under Period coverage for our recent attempts to examine the changes OED3 is introducing into the Dictionary’s chronological treatment of the language).

All the new material produced by the lexicographers, uploaded to the site in successive batches every quarter, is now merged into an altered version of the 1989 OED2 (on how this version has been altered, see our page on Changes to unrevised OED2). The new and revised entries are slotted into alphabetical sequence with the old, unrevised entries. So OED Online is a mixture of revised and unrevised material, with entries of a very different provenance distributed throughout the alphabet.

Users should always check the date of every entry consulted to ascertain whether it is revised or unrevised. OED Online is now providing more information than previously to aid users in this respect, but it still holds back from making it clear that an entry may be significantly out of date.

The central column of the screen, to the right of the text of the Dictionary entry itself, now gives (in red text) the date of first publication of the entry in question. Clicking on the link below, ‘Entry history’ (smaller black text), will reveal which version of the OED first included it and where and when the entry was subsequently published. Bear in mind that ‘publication’ does not mean ‘revision’ – an entry first published in in OED1 between 1884 and 1928, then published in OED2 in 1989, might nevertheless have remained completely unrevised. An illustration is the entry for banter, the first part of which reproduced below, where only the bibliographical referencing has been changed from the original entry (in order to bring it into line with material elsewhere in the Dictionary).

Screenshot of OED Online entry for banter, n., sense 1, taken 28 August 2018

The most recent quotation for sense 1 of banter is dated 1880 – a giveaway that the entry has not been touched since first publication in 1885 (when this material would have been entirely up-to-date). Another clue is the now old-fashioned vocabulary and phrasing of the definition, with the use of the adjective wanton and the phrase ‘talk in ridicule’. As these features indicate, the OED1 entry was not changed in any way from the 1880 version when published in OED2 in 1989 – as was the case with the vast majority of OED1 entries reproduced in OED2.

More detailed information can be found in our section Re-launched OED Online beginning on the next page.

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  1. The material in this section of the website draws in part on Brewer 2013a.
  2. Quoted from https://public.oed.com/updates/ [accessed July 2019].