Searching the Oxford English Dictionary


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The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) online is the most comprehensive of all English language dictionaries. This tutorial will walk you through the process of finding and analyzing words and phrases in the OED.

Using the page to your right, select Oxford English Dictionary online.

You may be prompted to enter your UA NetID and password.

You are now in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Search for a word

You are arguing with a friend about whether "wildcat" is one word or two.

Your Turn:

  • In the Quick search box, type wildcat and select Go. You should retrieve two results.

Is it wildcat or wild cat?


Find the first record of a word

1 of 2Now you want to impress your friend by telling him the first known use of the term, "wild cat."

Notice that the first entry lists 1400 as a date and the second lists 1418. These are the oldest known records of the words in writing in English.

Since you are interested in the oldest record, select the first result to open the full entry.

Find the first record of a word

2 of 2

You should see the definition as well as three examples of written usage of the term, "wild cat." What is the quote from 1400?

What is the name of the source material?

Find comparable words in other languages

1 of 2Notice you are now actually within the larger entry for "cat." There are dozens of other terms within this entry including "cat-burgling" and even expressions like "put the cat among the pigeons."

You want to learn more about "wild cat".

Your Turn:

  • Use your browser's back button to go back one page to the list of results
  • Select the second result, which is the official entry for wild cat, n.

Find comparable words in other languages

2 of 2You are interested in the etymology of the term.

What languages are listed as having words that compare to the English "wild cat?"

Find obsolete definitions

1 of 2You are interested in why we call the strip of grass in the center of the UA campus a "mall."

Your Turn:

  • Go to the Quick search box at the top of the page and type mall then select Go.

You should see two results. Notice the blue bar underneath the entries. If you hover over the blue bar, you will see a pop-up that says sense 1 of 13 or sense 1 of 1. This means that the first entry has 13 senses, or meanings. The second just has one.

  • Select the second entry for mall, n.

Find obsolete definitions

2 of 2

Notice the cross symbol to the left of the term. This means the word (or this use of the word) is now obsolete. What is the obsolete usage?

Distinguish pronunciations

Use your browser's back arrow to go back to the previous page.

  • This time, select the first entry for mall, n.

Notice there are several different pronunciations.

"Brit." means British pronunciation.

"U.S." means United States pronunciation.

The pronunciations are explained using an IPA transcription. What is IPA?

  • Select each transcription to see an explanation of the pronunciation.

How many U.S. pronunciations are listed?

Find the original meaning of a word

Notice the way entries are organized. Roman numerals break the entry up into different categories:

I. Senses deriving from the place that pall-mall was played.

II. Senses deriving from the mallet used in the game.

Look for the first definition under the first roman numeral.

What is the original meaning of the word "mall"?

Use the Historical Thesaurus

1 of 4

You are not a big fan of Tucson in the summer, although you love the monsoon. Now you are curious about the history of the word "desert."

Your Turn:

  • Go back to the OED homepage.
  • Select Historical Thesaurus.

This feature is a semantic index to the contents of the OED. It allows you to learn more about meanings of terms by seeing how they fit within broader categories. This can lead you to related terms and tell you more about the history of a particular category or meaning.

Use the Historical Thesaurus

2 of 4
  • In the search box, type desert. Select Go.

You should retrieve 23 results. This means there are 23 thesaurus classes that include the word "desert."

What is a class?

  • Select the first result. You should now see a tree of classes.

"Desert" is listed under:
the external world > the earth > land > landscape > wild or uncultivated land > noun.

Notice the list of terms with their senses (definitions) to the right of the tree of classes.

Check the number in parentheses next to "noun". How many senses belong to this same class (wild or uncultivated land > noun)?

Use the Historical Thesaurus

3 of 4Notice that the senses listed are organized chronologically. Scroll down to view all the different senses within this class.

Which sense (within this class) came first?

Use the Historical Thesaurus

4 of 4Notice that not all 92 entries are listed. That is because there are subcategories. Scroll to the bottom of the page to Subcategories and select barren land or desert.

How many senses belong to this class?

What are two of the subcategories for "barren land or desert?"


Explore the OED

1 of 3Now that you've learned about senses and categories through the power of the OED, you decide to explore some more.

Your Turn:

  • Go back to the OED homepage.
  • Select the red Categories link.
  • Under Usage, hover over colloquial and slang then select university slang.


Explore the OED

2 of 3

You should now see over 170 results that are considered university slang.

Notice the ability to Refine Your Search. Select Date of First Citation and 1400-1499.

What is the oldest term considered university slang?

Explore the OED

3 of 3
  • Select the term "people" to learn more about its meaning in this sense.

What is the definition of the term "people" in the university slang sense?

What are the spellings of "people" from the oldest two quotations listed under this sense?

Congratulations! You have completed this tutorial.




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