How to use the OED | Oxford English Dictionary (2023)

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.

It is not necessary to type punctuation or worry about special characters, accents, hyphens, or capital letters. Typing Conservative, conservative, or CONSERVATIVE returns the same results.
However, if you do want to take case into account, click the Case-sensitive checkbox. When the box is checked the search term Conservative finds only Conservative.

If you want to find a specific accented or hyphenated term, enter it into the search box and make sure Exact characters is checked. When Exact characters is selected, a search for Café finds Café only, and a search for no-one finds no-one only.

You can enter special characters using the character palette just below the input box. Open the palette by clicking on it. Then click on any of the letters to paste it into the search box. Special characters can also be pasted into the input box via Character Map, using the keyboard equivalents given in Character Map, by typing the Unicode characters, using Alt key codes, via a regional keyboard, or by pasting them into the input box from another source.

Running an Advanced search

Here’s how to run the simplest search:

(Video) Using the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)

  • Open the Advanced search page by clicking Advanced search under the Search box at the top of the page (or in the centre of the Home page).
  • Type the word or phrase you want to find into the main search box at the top of the page.
  • How to use the OED | Oxford English Dictionary (1)
  • Click ‘search’.
  • The results are displayed in the Results list. 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.
  • You can build on this basic search procedure in the ways outlined below.

Choosing the scope of your search

The scope determines the kind of results you get from a search. By default, your results are returned by entry, just as in a Quick search. But a typical entry is divided into senses and for each of the senses there are usually a number of quotations. In an Advanced search you also have the option to return your results by sense or by quotations.

You choose the scope of your search using the tabs marked Entries, Senses, and Quotations at the top of the Advanced search panel.

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  • Entries:
    this is the default scope. When this is selected, your search returns a list of entries. For example, a search for headache lists all the entries which contain this word.
  • Senses: a search on Senses returns individual senses within entries. A search for headache lists all the senses which contain this word.
  • Quotations: a search on Quotations returns individual quotations within entries. A search for headache lists all the quotations which contain this word.

Choosing your search area

This is the type of dictionary text you choose to search in an Advanced search. You choose your search area from the list box on the right of the search box, which is headed Full Text.

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When you look at a typical entry you will see that it is divided into different sections. In addition to the main definition text for each of the senses of the entry, there is often information on variant spellings, etymology, quotations, etc. By default, an Advanced search searches the entire text of the entries, but you can confine your search area to a number of other areas, if you prefer.

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Click on the Full text list box and make your choice from the list.

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  • Full text is the entire text of all the entries in the dictionary. It includes the entry names as well as spellings, definitions, etymologies, and quotations. A search on the full text of the dictionary is the broadest possible search.
  • Headword confines your search to the main titles of entries.
  • Lemma restricts your search to compounds and phrases which appear within the entries. (E.g. a Lemma search on ladder finds the lemma aerial ladder in the entry aerial, adj.
  • Variant spelling searches the dictionary’s variant spellings for your term. (A search for color finds this as a variant spelling, for example, in the entries choler, colour, hypercolour, and versicolour.)
  • Definitions searches the area of the text which contains all the defined senses or meanings of the entry. There is a definition for every sense of the entry. For example, the definition of the entry marble, n., sense 1.a is:
  • How to use the OED | Oxford English Dictionary (5)
  • Etymology searches the text which contains information on the origin of the word. Etymology – Language searches language names only (e.g., Low German, Dutch, Frisian). Etymology – Cited Form searches the cited word form only (e.g., brein, *bragno, etc.).
  • Labels are used to give brief information, usually in abbreviated form, on the context in which that term is used. For instance, a label will 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 are the examples from print and manuscript sources which illustrate each sense of an entry. (Quotations are shown by default but you have the option to hide them.) There are usually quotations for every sense of the headword. You can choose to search all quotations or confine your search to the text of the first quotation in a sense, i.e. the earliest recorded evidence for the use of a sense (1st Quotation), authors (Quotation Author), dates (Quotation Date), the titles of quoted works (Quotation Title), or the text of quotations (Quotation Text). Choose the appropriate option from the list.

Using filters

A filter enables you to narrow your search to entries which match a particular criterion (e.g., words of Native American origin, slang terms, terms whose first use is dated 1960–69, etc.). Two or more filters may be combined in a search. Filters may be combined with search terms, but you can also search on the basis of a filter alone. Filters include:

  • Language of Origin: the linguistic origin of a term (e.g., European languages)
  • Usage: how the word is used (e.g., derogatory, ironic)
  • Region: where (geographically) the term is used (e.g., Caribbean)
  • Subject: its subject as designated in the dictionary (e.g., Arts, Logic)
  • For the above filters, you can click the relevant Browse option (e.g., Browse origin ») to display the available filters. Choose a filter from the list by clicking on it. Alternatively, if you know the name of the filter, begin typing it directly into the input box. An autocomplete prompt will appear to help you key in the filter in the correct form.

    Other filters include:

  • Date of entry: date of the first quoted use of the term. Type your chosen date into the input box. You can type in a single date (for example, 1965), a range of dates (using the format 1970-1975, for example), or an open date range. For this option, use the format ‘-1401’ (entries dated 1401 and earlier) or ‘1910-‘ (entries dated 1910 and later). To restrict your results to current or obsolete entries or senses only, check the appropriate box.
  • Part of speech: for example, ‘suffix’ or ‘interjection’. All parts of speech are selected by default. Choose an option from the drop-down menu to select a specific part of speech (e.g. combining form).
  • Restrict to entry letter or range: Use this option to restrict your search to entries with beginning with a particular letter or matching a specific wildcarded string (e.g., all entries beginning with g*, or all entries containing the string *calcu*). Type your term into the box. You can type in: a wildcarded letter (e.g., b*) to find matching entries beginning with that letter; a wildcard term (e.g., poly*) to find results matching this string; a single word (e.g., lie). This finds only those entries with that headword.

Searching for more than one term at once

If you would like to search for more than one term at once, key your second search term into the second input box. (You can continue to add input boxes to search for more than two terms by clicking “Add row”.)

Between the input boxes is a list box, headed And. This is where you select how you want to combine your terms. The options are:

(Video) OED Oxford English Dictionary

  • And: finds results containing all your terms
  • Or: finds results containing either of the terms
  • Not: finds results containing the first term but not the second
  • Near: finds your terms near (i.e. within a specified number of words of) one another. The terms must be anywhere within the same section of an entry
  • Not Near: finds your terms where they do not occur near (i.e. within a specified number of words of) one another
  • By default a Near/Not Near search is set to One Word. The search will look for your terms within one word of one another. You can switch to finding them within Five, Ten, Fifteen, Twenty, Fifty, or a Hundred Words of one another by choosing the appropriate option from the list.

    If you wish, you can specify a different search area for each of your terms. Choose the appropriate search area (e.g. Quotation) from the box.

Wildcard searching

A quick search will find your term if it is a main entry, subentry, or variant spelling. The quick search will not recognize a misspelling. If you do not know how to spell a word, you can use a wildcard character in your search.

A wildcard is a symbol which stands for any character. Two wildcards are available. The question mark ? represents the occurrence of any one single character, and 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.
  • 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.
  • The search term *sychok?n?s?s finds psychokinesis
  • The term colo*r matches color and colour
  • The term chorograph* finds chorographer, chorographic, chorographical, and chorographically

Performing an ordered search

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A Near/Not Near search finds your terms in any order (i.e. Olympic before or after games). Click the Ordered box to search for them only in the order in which they appear in the search fields.

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Note that the Near/Not Near part of a search is always performed first, regardless of the order of any other terms in the search.

When more than one operator (e.g., And and Or) is used, the search is run in the order in which they are listed. For example:

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This search retrieves entries in which bird OR mammal occurs in the definition, AND in which Australia occurs. In other words, the search is bracketed as (bird OR mammal) AND Australia, which states that the operation Or is to be performed first.
You can override this default ordering by selecting the order you want from the panel to the right of the Advanced search form.

To run a search that would search for bird OR (mammal AND Australia), you would need to reorder the terms:

How to use the OED | Oxford English Dictionary (9)

Searching for a phrase

(Video) How to Use the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to Further Your Close Reading

You can search for a phrase (e.g. eat humble pie) using the Advanced search. Type the phrase into the Search box and start the search in the usual way.

An Advanced search looks for your phrase in the entire text of the dictionary, so this may be the most efficient search to choose.

If you are not sure in exactly what form your phrase may appear in the dictionary, consider an Advanced search for more than one term (e.g. humble Near pie).


1. How to Use the Oxford English Dictionary Online | Oxford Academic
(Oxford Academic (Oxford University Press))
2. Correct way to use Oxford Dictionary | OXFORD ADVANCE LEARNER'S DICTIONARY
(Dean Sir The Educator)
3. How to Use the OED for Free
(Somerset Libraries UK)
4. Compact Oxford English Dictionary
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5. Sir James Murray and The Oxford English Dictionary
(Nicholas Hoare Books)
6. Which English Dictionary is Best for You? - We Reviewed 9 Popular Online Dictionaries
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