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You can search the OED with either a Quick Search or an Advanced Search.
Things to note:
- The OED does not include proper names unless they are widely used in a particular context (Chamberlainism, Shakespearian).
- Letters of the alphabet each have their own OED entry, discussing the history of each letter in typography and usage.
- Acronyms are initialisms that are now words: for instance, NASA is now a word itself, and is no longer only short for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
- Affixes involve adding something to make an entirely new word: "pro-," "re-" and so on. These will usually have their own entry.
- The OED contains some ghost words. Ghost words are words that were originally misspelled or misprinted, made their way into the English language, and now are considered spurious.
The quick search finds main dictionary entries, such as cat, break, or xylophone. It also finds phrases and compounds listed within main entries, such as to look up or alphabet book, and variant spellings such as dictionarie.
- Type the word you want to find in the Quick Search box at the top of the page.
- Don't worry about punctuation, accents, hyphens, or capital letters
- One result will open automatically
- More than one result will open a list of entries with each word's first definition. Choose the entry you want.
- No results will return a list of closest matches alphabetically
An Advanced search is a full search of the entire dictionary text. It finds your term wherever it occurs in the dictionary. This could be in the form of an entry name, part of another word’s definition, in a quotation, etc. An Advanced search also allows you to search for words that occur near one another, such as bread before butter.
Some other features are:
- You can take the case into account in your search using the Case-Sensitive checkbox
- You can find accented or hyphenated terms by using the Exact Characters checkbox.
- You can use their character palette so you don't have to know the Alt-key codes to these characters.
- Open the Advanced search page by clicking Advanced search under the Quick Search box.
- Type the word or phrase you want to find into the main search box at the top of the page.
- Click ‘search’.
- Each of the results consists of a headword and an excerpt from the first definition of the entry or subentry.
- Click on any of the headwords in the list to open its entry.
- Results will be listed alphabetically, but you can also choose to order them by frequency or date, or to jump to a particular alphabetical point by typing the letter you want into the input box and clicking ‘GO’.
- A message is displayed if there are no results.
As you can see from this example, many of the general keyword results have the word in its quotes. You can narrow using the filters on the right (Subject [food]; Language of Origin [French]; Region [Australia]; Usage [slang]; Date of entry [1800-2000]; Part of speech [noun]; or First Cited in).
You can choose to search items other than keywords. They are:
- Headword - main titles of entries.
- Lemma - compounds and phrases that appear within the entries. (café finds internet cafe in the entry internet.)
- Variant spelling - variant spellings (color finds the entries choler, colour, hypercolour, and versicolour).
- Definitions - all the defined senses or meanings of the entry.
- Etymology - information on the origin of the word.
- Language - searches language names only (e.g., Low German, Dutch, Frisian).
- Cited Word– searches the cited word form only (e.g., brein, *bragno, etc.).
- Labels - brief information on the context in which that term is used. A label can give a term’s regional origin (e.g. U.S., Australia), the subject area from which it derives (e.g. Biology, Chemistry, Music), the status or level of language to which it belongs (e.g. slang, dialect), its grammatical function (e.g. plural, collective), and the type of meaning assigned to a word in a particular context (figurative, specific).
- Quotations - the examples from print and manuscript sources which illustrate each sense of an entry.
- First Quotation - earliest recorded evidence for the use of a sense
- Quotation Date
- Quotation Author
- Quotation Title - title of quoted work
- Quotation Text
As with all database searches, use AND, OR, or NOT to search more than one term or to limit a search.
Don't forget about WILDCARDS!
A wildcard is a symbol which stands for any character. Wildcards are useful if you do not know how to spell a word, if you are not sure in what form the term you want appears in the dictionary, or if you want to find several terms beginning with the same root.
Two wildcards are available.
- The question mark ? represents the occurrence of any one single character,
- The asterisk * represents the occurrence of any number of characters (or no character at all).
A search with a wildcard retrieves all results which contain matching terms. For example:
- c?t finds cat, cot, cut
- c*t finds cat, caught, commencement, conflict, consent, cot, cut, etc.
- *sychok?n?s?s finds psychokinesis
- colo*r matches color and colour
- chorograph* finds chorographer, chorographic, chorographical, and chorographically