Searching the OED

Searching the OED

You may have spotted our how to search the OED guide recently. To supplement this, we’d like to highlight some of the interesting things you can find in the OED by performing particular searches.

Finding out when a particular word or sense emerged

Type a search term into the OED’s Quick Search and you will either be taken to the most relevant entry or to a list of possible results. Click through to the relevant entry page and you will be able to see the first known written use of the word you have searched for. Senses are ordered chronologically in the OED, with the earliest sense of a word shown first, and later senses appearing further down the page.

  • If, for example, you were curious about when people first began to describe things as having gone ‘pear-shaped’, searching for ‘pear-shaped’ will take you to the entry for pear-shaped, adj. Within the entry, we can see that pear-shaped, meaning ‘Shaped like a pear; tapering towards the top and rounded at the bottom’ first appeared in 1731. If we scroll down the page, we can see that by 1983 the colloquial term meaning ‘to go (badly) wrong, to go awry’ had emerged, originally as R.A.F. slang (TIP: you can use the OED’s categories page to generate a list of words from a particular subject or type of usage, e.g. military terms or slang.).
  • Continuing on the fruit theme, if, for example, you would like to learn whether orange the fruit was named after orange the colour, or vice versa, you can type ‘orange’ into the OED’s Quick Search bar—you will then be taken to a list of results. Click on orange, n.1  and adj.1 to view the relevant entry, and you will see that the senses related to the fruit and tree are recorded from a1400, but the first quotation for the sense ‘A bright reddish-yellow colour like that of the skin of a ripe orange; any one of a number of shades occupying the region between red and yellow in the spectrum. Also: a pigment or dye of this colour’ is 1557. The fruit came first!

BONUS FACT: take a peek at the etymology section of the OED’s entry for orange and you will see that this is an example of metanalysis, a process by which the division between words or parts of words is changed, resulting in the creation of a new word (as in the development of ‘an apron’ from ‘a napron’, ‘an adder’ from ‘a nadder’, or ‘an uncle’ from ‘a nuncle’).

Take the quiz

Take this quiz to see examples of the kinds of questions you can find the answers to by using the OED’s quick search.

Find out HOW a particular word or sense emerged

If you would like to dive deeper, and learn how a word or sense came about, and not only when, there are several options for you.

  • Exploring etymology: each OED entry contains an etymology section, which can be found beneath the headword. One of the Caribbean English words in the OED is the verb lime, meaning ‘To socialize informally; to hang out’ – if we take a look at the etymology section, we can learn how this term came about:
Image of etymology section of OED entry for 'lime'

TIP: you can also click on the hyperlinked words in the etymology section of any entry to explore further. In the case of lime, you could click on ‘LIMEY n.’ within the etymology and from there onto lime-juicer, to learn that the reason the term ‘limey’ was applied to British and U.S sailors was because in the British navy the consumption of lime juice was enforced (as an antiscorbutic).

  • Viewing related commentary beneath the definition: for some entries in the OED, senses of a word emerge for which there is additional explanatory information separate to the etymology of the main headword. This can be seen in light bulb moment, for example, which sits within the entry for light bulb, n. Here we learn how the term has its origins in the comic book world:
screenshot of explanatory text under OED entry for 'light bulb moment'

Explore further*

Use the OED to:

  • View the related commentary beneath the appropriate sense of mole to learn how it came to be applied to spies
  • Find out how inhabitants of Bermuda came to be referred to as Onions
  • Explore the etymology section of trot, n.4 to learn how ‘trot’ came to be applied to a style of Korean music.
  • You can also use the Quick Search or Advanced Search to explore any other terms of interest

*if you do not have a personal subscription to the OED, many institutions and public libraries subscribe, and you may be able to log in using your library card . Learn more about accessing the OED through an institution.

How to find words from a particular time frame

Searching for words from a particular year

If you would like to learn which words originated in a particular year, use the OED’s Advanced Search to search words by date of entry:

This will generate a list of words for which the OED records a quotation from the specified year as the first known use.

BONUS: you can also use the OED’s birthday words tool to generate one word from the year you were born

Searching for words from a particular time period

If, for example, you are writing a novel set during the First World War and would like to know which words originated between 1914 and 1918, you can use the OED’s Advanced Search to search for words only from this particular timeframe.

Screenshot of the date of entry functionality that is part of the OED's advanced search, showing how to search for words from a particular time frame

The results pages will show up to 100 results per page. You can also select ‘senses’ at the top of the Advanced Search page if you would like to view senses of words which emerged during this time period, rather than only headwords—for example, this kind of search would lead you to ‘the Allies’, a sense of ally, n.1. which emerged in 1914 (the first known use of ally itself is c.1380).

Alternatively, you can type ‘-1918’, to view all words which have first dates up to and including 1918.

BONUS: for those interested in words form the First World War, a list of 100 words related to this time period is already available here.

How to find obsolete or old forms of words in the OED

The OED offers a record of English covering more than 1,000 years. Some of these words are now obsolete, and many will have had a number of different spellings in the past. OED entries contain a variant forms section, where relevant, illustrating such spellings. If you come across a spelling of an uncertain word in an old document, you can use the OED’s Advanced Search to match the spelling to the most likely word. For example, typing ‘bagger’ and selecting ‘variant spelling’ from the drop-down menu will generate a list of three results:

Screenshot taken from OED's advanced search to demonstrate functionality to search for variant spellings
Screenshot of search results displayed after searching for variant spellings of 'bagger'

Click on your entry of choice, and click on ‘view full entry’. From here you will be able to look at the forms section (like etymology, this is located just below the headword) and view all the variant spellings for this word that have been recorded through different time periods:

Screenshot of OED entry for 'badger, n.1' to demonstrate where forms section can be found

More to explore

Learn more about accessing the OED through an institution

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.