Period coverage

OED1’s coverage of different periods in the language varied enormously. Inevitably, the same was also true of OED2, the second edition of the Dictionary published in 1989, since this simply merged OED1 (published 1884-1928) with the 20th-century Supplement (1972-86). Much more surprisingly, the ongoing revision of OED (OED3), appears to be replicating many of these original variations, despite the vast increases in availability and accessibility of quotation source material since the two earlier editions were published. This can be seen at a glance by looking at the charts at OED’s outline representation of the language.

One of the aims of Examining the OED is to investigate whether this variation reflects the methodology of the lexicographers or the different rates of lexical productivity at different points in the history of the English language. The pages in this section of EOED examine the different periods and centuries covered by OED1, using our project’s pre-2010 electronic searches of OED2 as a proxy for OED1.1

OED3’s revisions to date are also discussed so far as is possible and practicable. The main problem here is that the OED Online website does not allow users to distinguish between OED2 (i.e. unrevised) and OED3 (i.e. revised) entries when making electronic searches. It is therefore impossible to compare the new with the revised entries – except one by one, not a practicable method given the quantity and variety of material involved.

This leaves Dictionary users unable, for the most part, to assess the progress and character of OED3’s revision in any systematic way. Correspondingly, we cannot yet assess the implications of the substantial scholarly research now being conducted by the lexicographers for our picture of the history and development of the language period by period. There are interesting signs of where the OED3 project is going, nevertheless, and where it has directed much of its energies to date – most notably, from the 18th century onwards, in the vastly increased citation of journals, periodicals, and newspapers. This is discussed on the pages on OED3 period coverage listed below.

See further OED Online.

Last updated on 22 May 2020


  1. Caution is needed here in interpreting the results; see Sources of OED data.