The Oxford English Dictionary: A Primer

This page will teach you the basics of looking up a word in the electronic version of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The OED is an indispensable tool for linguists, and the electronic version especially so: you can search for a word and within seconds the dictionary will provide you with the word's etymology, its various spellings throughout its history, and a number of other facts.

Abbreviations that the OED uses can be found by clicking here or by going to their help.

To access the OED, ASU students should login using this link with their ASURITE ID. Students at other universities should ask their instructor or their friendly local librarian for directions.

Two words, very and with, have been arbitrarily selected as example searches. We know from Chapter 4 that the first is most likely a loan since it starts with a [v]. We will also use the Advanced Search feature to look for words introduced at a given date or words borrowed from a certain language.

Regular Search


After logging into the online version, you will see a 'Welcome to OED Online' screen, with a box in the upper right hand corner that says 'find word' (Figure 1). This is the 'simple search' box.
Figure 1: Simple Search Box
Type in very and click "Find Word". You will then get a choice between 1very as just a noun, or 2very as an adjective, adverb, and noun (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Search Results for 'very'
In this case, click on the second option (very as adjective, adverb, and noun). This will lead you to a page like Figure 3 below, with the dictionary definition. Please note that the definition is many pages long, and only the first few lines are reproduced in Figure 3.
Figure 3: Dictionary Entry for 'very'

Under section A., the adjectival uses of very are given, and if you scroll down further, you'll get to section B. with the adverbial uses and to C. with the nominal ones. These pages are not reproduced here. From Figure 3 above, you can learn that the first use of very as adjective was around 1250, and see the texts it is first found in. This adjectival use is not the most typical Modern English use so you may want to scroll down. If the earlier quotes are hard to read, just skip them.

On the initial screen, the quotations are given automatically but not the pronunciation, etymology, spellings, and date chart. You can click on the row of buttons near the top of the page to get this information. For instance, after clicking on the "Etymology" button, the information in Figure 4 below will be added to the top of the page.

Figure 4: Etymology for 'very'

Initially, you may have to look up the abbreviations in the 'Help' section, which you can access by clicking the appropriately named button in the bottom right corner of the page. The abbreviations relevant to Figure 4 appear in Table 1:

What the OED says in Figure 4 is that very is adopted from the version of French spoken in England, i.e. Anglo-French (AF). This is a subtle way of saying it is a loan word from French. The compilers of the dictionary may have had evidence that it was actually used by French speakers in England rather than borrowed by someone whose main language was English. For our purposes that distinction is not so relevant.

Our conclusion can be that it is a loan from French and has cognates in Provençal and is "f. the stem of L. verus", i.e. the French derives from Latin. The quotes that are given tell you that very is borrowed in the Early Middle English period.

If you click on "Spelling Forms", over 40 different spellings appear! The date chart is helpful to see when one use of the word is common.


The smaller, grammatical words are the hardest to trace in the OED. That is because their spelling is very variant and often the meaning and use change quite a lot. If you look up with in the OED, you will initially get nine results. The first five give you with listed under other entries, e.g. eye, and aren't usually very relevant. The sixth entry is with- as a verbal prefix, and the seventh is a technical term for a partition in a chimney that is not widely used. The one probably most relevant to you is that of with, prep., (adv., conj.). Clicking on that will give you a very long entry that starts as in Figure 5:

A. prep.
The prevailing senses of this prep. in the earliest periods are those of opposition (`against') and of motion or rest in proximity (`towards', `alongside'), which are now current only in certain traditional collocations or specific applications. These notions readily pass into fig. uses denoting various kinds of relations, among which those implying reciprocity are at first prominent. The most remarkable development in the signification of with consists in its having taken over in the ME. period the chief senses belonging properly to OE. mid MID prep.1 (cognate with Gr. μετα with). These senses are mainly those denoting association, combination or union, instrumentality or means, and attendant circumstance. These are all important senses of ON. við, to which fact their currency and ultimate predominance in the English word are partly due. The last important stage was the extension of with from the instrument to the agent, in which use it was current for different periods along with of and through, and later with by, which finally superseded the other three. The range of meanings in general has no doubt been enlarged by association with L. cum. The interaction of senses and sense-groups has been such that the position of a particular sense in the order of development is often difficult to determine.
Figure 5: Definition for 'with'

The information in this figure gives a good description of the change in meaning, but one that is pretty abstract. If you wonder about what the A, a, 1, and I refer to, click on the entry map at the bottom left. You will see that this entry is divided into A, B, C, and D and these correspond to preposition, adverb, conjunction, and compound respectively. A in its turn is divided into I, II, and III. These are the main meanings, with I "denoting opposition", II "denoting personal relation" etc, and III "denoting instrumentality" etc. We can see from the examples that meanings I and II are from the earliest Old English, but that III first appears only around 1200.

Advanced Search


If you want to find all the words that first appear in, say, 1600, you could look at the printed Chronological English Dictionary (by Finkenstaedt et al). You could also do this online using the OED and get a much larger set of new words. Go into the search page of the OED, and look in the left bottom corner for the "Advanced Search" button. Click on this and you get something looking like Figure 6:

Figure 6: Advanced Search Form

Simply type 1600 in the empty box on the top line and change the 'full text' to 'first cited date', as shown in the example. Click on "Start search" and you will get over 1000 entries.

Source Language

If you would like to find all the words in the OED of Celtic origin, you go to the same page, and using the screen of Figure 6, type Celtic in place of 1600 and change 'full text' to 'etymologies'. You will find over 200 entries, which you will need to check since some say "perhaps Celtic" and the like.