Dictionaries, the OED, and what do you use?

By Grant Jacobs 31/08/2010

As claims that the OED is looking towards ceasing print publication of the ‘complete’ edition circulate (and are countered), I ruminate on the OED and dictionaries.


Anyone involved in writing by now will know by now there are claims that the next edition of the OED – The Oxford English Dictionary – may not appear in print form. Other reports suggest this is not a done deal as initial accounts in newspapers around the world say. Nevertheless, it’s a nice excuse to ponder on the OED and dictionaries.

It’s a colossus of the English language, with the second edition running to 20 weighty volumes. There’s even a guide to it and a word of the day RSS feed, which you can also view as a webpage. (‘to cross or pass the Rubicon’ is up today. Given how many words they have to chosen from it’ll be a long time before they double up…)


On my shelves is a copy of Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne. (I believe this now goes under the title The Professor and the Madman.) In it Winchester recounts how (paraphasing from the blurb on the rear cover) ’Dr. W. C. Minor, lascivious, charismatic, a millionaire American Civil War surgeon and homicidal lunatic, confined to Broadmoor Asylum, pursued his passion for words and and became one of the OED’s most valued contributors.’ It’s a short book (207 pages), but a great read. I have to admit I still haven’t gotten the account of this gentleman’s self-surgery out of my head. (I would give the spoiler, but it’s stunning.)

A later book, The Meaning of Everything, looks further into the history of the dictionary. (See the cover for a beard you’d rarely see today! The gentleman could step right into Lord of the Rings as a wizard.)

I have faint memories of an older edition of the ’full thing’ arrayed on the shelves of my college at Cambridge. While impressive, the volumes were so big and the writing so small as to make it unwieldy to use so rarely I did, preferring for most uses the more compact (and current) shorter versions.

What do you use for a dictionary?


I rarely use on-line dictionaries, or dictionary aggregator sites. I almost only ever turn to these when wanting a translation of foreign-language words.

I’ll confess I occasionally exploit google’s alternative spellings as a spelling aid, when in-line dictionary look-up fails. (On Mac OS X, if you control-click a word in any text box, you get a list of actions you take on the word. If the word is incorrectly spelt, at the top alternative spellings are listed. If this can’t offer anything, sometimes I type the incorrectly spelt word into google and let it suggest alternative spellings instead. More often than not it does well.)

In place of on-line dictionaries, I use a mix of the dictionary available on my computer and the Shorter Oxford, the OED’s smaller cousin.

In my case my dictionary application is Apple’s Dictionary, a nice example of a small, focused application that does what it does well. Every complete word in the descriptions are themselves links to dictionary entries of the word. There’s a thesaurus and direct access to wikipedia. (If you leave the word selected and click on ‘Wikipedia’, the entry for that word appears.) Most times it’s enough.


For trickier words – the New Oxford American Dictionary that this is based on doesn’t have everything – I have my Shorter Oxford Dictionary to call on, a two-volume thing running to ~3800 large (~29x22cm) pages of small type. While it’s ‘Shorter’, it’s not short. Technical words, from scientific words for example, can still be a problem as even the Shorter lacks entries for many of these.

Other articles on Code for life:

To link or not to link: is that the question?

Looking for a book to read?

Coiling bacterial DNA

What is your relationship with your research notebook?

0 Responses to “Dictionaries, the OED, and what do you use?”

  • I have a Concise OED that I swear by, but really askoxford.com is my port of call when I’m plugged in. I like to have a pocket dictionary for when I’m working in cafes and stuff, but I tend to lose them (alongside keys, wallets, etc). Petit Robert for French, always. And any old Websters dictionary for Americanisms.

    My opinion of Collins is pretty low. Their large concise dictionaries often don’t carry etymological references. I hate being stuck with them.

    I wouldn’t mind seeing the multi-volume OED go digital, just so long as there are plenty of concise hard copies available.

  • Hi Matty,

    I know I probably should make more use of the on-line dictionaries, but what I have seems to work well enough I suppose. Word origins are great things. The ArsTechnica article I linked to in an earlier comment features the entry for ‘toad-eater’.

    I wouldn’t miss the complete edition in print, as like most people I’ve never really used it. I miss it much less than, say, hearing Kodachrome was no longer available. Having said that it is perhaps another pointer towards an increasingly digital and on-line world.