Online English Dictionaries: Oxford and Cambridge University Presses
It's Called the OED
The Oxford English Dictionary of the English Language
Probably the most famous English dictionary of all is the Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition, (OED), which calls itself “The definitive record of the English language.” It is available as a subscription published by Oxford University Press, part of the University of Oxford. The value of the OED is the material that accompanies the normal entry material of a dictionary; most dictionaries provide pronunciation and syllables, parts of speech and meanings. The OED provides the etymology of a word, using quotations taken from the first time the word was found in print until the present day, giving variant spellings and historical context. There are about 2.5 million quotations from varied sources, including international works, with definitions for more than 500,000 words, and the total is growing. In the OED, a reader can find the entire history of a word, from the meaning and spelling when it was first used to the modern spelling and current usage.
In print, the Second Edition was published in 1989, and it's in 20 volumes, with three additional volumes published between 1993 and 1997. Online, a subscription to the dictionary provides you with access to all volumes in print, plus additions of new and revised words. The OED is currently undergoing a complete revision, with the aim of producing a Third Edition. Quarterly, from 1,000 to about 2,500 new words and revised definitions are added to the online edition. The online dictionary allows you to toggle between editions and revisions for any definitions which had alterations to see changes in meanings through the history of the dictionary.
The online version gives versatility and abilities to the reader which can not be found in the print volumes, including the ongoing inclusion of new words into the English language. The reader has hyperlink access to words used in definitions, and the ability to sort both words and quotations in an variety of different ways. You can ask to see all the examples of a word used during a single year, or all the words used in quotations from Charles Dickens with Greek roots. You can also toggle on and off any of the functions the online dictionary provides, from the full text of a definition to using a drop-down list to finding a particular section of a definition.
There is a very comprehensive tour of the OED online, showcasing and explaining the workings of the dictionary.
And, it has the ability, by using wild cards in searches throughout the dictionary, to be a marvelous crossword puzzle solver.
Access to the OED is expensive, for individuals, $295 a year, There are options to also pay for access on a monthly basis, and outside the Americas, on a weekly basis. However, institutions are also major users of the OED, and if a library or educational institution to which you belong subscribes to the OED, you can also gain access through them.
The Second Edition is also available on CD for approximately the same price as a yearly subscription, but numerous reviews of the software program show an enormous amount of frustration with the way the CD version was implemented, and the copy protection on the software.
The OED website has links to a number of resources provided by the Oxford University Press to aid English language learners.
They offer an RSS feed to the OED Word of the Day (see the sidebar on the right-hand side of the OED home page).
The Compact Oxford English Dictionary is also online. It is also published by Oxford University Press, but is a much smaller and less comprehensive dictionary. It contains 145,000 definitions, instead of the more than 500,000 definitions of the OED. However, it allows the ability to search for free to anyone who accesses the website. As well as the Compact Oxford English Dictionary, it allows you to look up a word in the Oxford Learners Dictionary.
It also has a dialog box for AskOxford, now known simply as Oxford, which can be downloaded to your website, allowing a word to entered, which is then defined by the Compact Oxford English Dictionary. Their definition is not as complete as that of many dictionaries, but includes the parts of speech and meanings of the word. However, they also include definitions from other sources in their list of links, so it is possible to see what several different dictionaries give as the definition of the same word. It does not provide pronunciation, the etymology, or the quotations using the word found in the OED.
The AskOxford site has numerous resources for teachers and students of English as a Foreign Language. You can find work sheets with exercises for English comprehension and news articles in English, with questions to test your comprehension of your reading. There are also online practice tests for English exams.
You can also purchase the Compact Oxford English Dictionary for about $23, and it does provide pronunciation and language of origin in the printed volume.
Cambridge University Press: Find the Cambridge Dictionary Online
Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary is one of several free online dictionaries affiliated with Cambridge University Press. These dictionaries are particularly useful to learners of English as a Second language. They do not provide the etymology of the words they define, because they concentrate their resources on contemporary English usage. However, you can toggle on the phonetics to see how to pronounce a word.
The Cambridge site also provides an additional list of dictionaries you can search in, if you do not want to use the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary. These include American English, Idioms, and Phrasal Verbs, such as 'go' or 'be', and an English French dictionary. These dictionaries are also available for sale on their site, most with both a hard copy and a CD of the dictionary.
The Cambridge Dictionary Online also provides a number of free resources for English Language teachers, and learners of English as a second language. They also publish a series of books, Cambridge English for... Engineering, Nursing, and other specialized professions where a specific English vocabulary is needed.
The Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary is available in paperback with CD for $34.