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How to search OED
NOTE: the material in this section of the site is now out of date following the re-launch of OED Online in December 2010.
The data represented in our various graphs and analyses is derived from electronic searching of OED Online, as described below. We have written this material in both explanatory and instructional form, so that it not only records our own procedures but also facilitates independent searching and investigation of OED.

Please note:
  1. There is sometimes confusion about what OED Online is and what stage of the Dictionary it reflects. We have attempted to clarify this in our introductory note to OED's publication history: initial information. You may wish to read this note before replicating our searches or making your own.
  2. The main text and search facilities of OED Online are available only to individual and institutional subscribers.
Electronic searching of the OED is not a straightforward procedure. This is usually attributable not to faults in the electronic searching tools but to the varying ways in which the lexicographers have recorded their evidence over the many years of publication. For sophisticated searches, whether for a body of quotations or a category of editorial comment, ingenious manipulation of the search options often enables satisfactory results. There are still some items the tools cannot deal with, however: for example, it is not possible to search for the paragraph mark () used in the OED1 and the Supplement – but not, so far, in OED3 - to indicate catachrestic or erroneous usage. Searches are time-consuming and require careful adjustment and filtering, so as to make sure one has arrived at an accurate result.

The help pages at OED Online provide excellent support and are the place to start. The main problem to bear in mind is that authors' names, works, and dates of publication are not always consistently rendered. Thus in the first edition of OED, the work by Carlyle on the French Revolution was cited in at least five different forms, while in the second edition, volumes of poems by Auden were usually referred to by their UK titles, but also on occasion by their American titles, with dates different from the UK equivalents. The OED is currently standardizing the way in which quotation sources are identified in OED Online, in a huge sub-project of the revision process.

Another factor to be aware of is that the first edition of OED, when quoting a single source twice in succession, on the second occasion sometimes designated it ibid. (= 'the same place' [Latin]). Searches for specified sources (as described in the pages below) return results which exclude quotations thus identified. OED2 contains 70,187 quotations whose sources are marked ibid., viz. 3.8% of its total of 1,861,200 quotations (for a range of such figures, see page on Dictionary facts on OED Online). A further number of quotations, impossible to count electronically, are identified with a dash, indicating a reference to the same author (as opposed to work) as that of the quotation previously cited in an entry.

Given the limitations of the electronic tools currently available, we are unable, faute de mieux, to take into account 'ibids' and dashes when interpreting results. (It is often the case that an additional quotation from the same source in an entry rarely adds something new to it: see e.g. s.v. sense 1. a. of the verb report, which has two quotations from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and two from Milton's Paradise Lost.)

OED3 has entirely dropped the use of both the term ibid. and the dash, and identifies every quotation source by name and/or title.

The directions provided below have been written by Christopher Whalen. Please contact us if you have any queries or encounter any problems.

Author quotations
Author quotations in alphabetical range
First quotations by author
How to search for hapax legomena
Note on Appendix of Tables in Willinsky 1994

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