Official Dictionary of Unofficial English

Barrett, Grant. The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006.

A great dictionary of neologisms. It’s now out of print, but still available from used booksellers.

Lexicon Balatronicum [Historical]

Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (Lexicon Balatronicum). 1985 reprint ed. London: Bibliophile Books, 1811.

An anonymous, and posthumous updating of Grose’s famous slang dictionary. Available online at Project Gutenberg.

Medieval Latin Word-List

Latham, R. E. Revised Medieval Latin Word-List from British and Irish Sources with Supplement. London: Oxford University Press, 1980.

A Latin-English dictionary, but one based on how Latin was used in medieval Britain and Ireland. This volume formed the basis for the full Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources (subscription service). It’s not as complete or, because it’s the initial draft, not as rigorously compiled, but it’s a convenient, inexpensive, one-volume resource.

Guide to Old English

Mitchell, Bruce, and Fred C. Robinson. A Guide to Old English. Eighth ed. Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2011.

An introductory text for learning Old English. Complete with readings.

Shorter Oxford English Dictionary

Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. Sixth ed. Two vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

The SOED is an abridged version of the larger OED, containing words in use since 1700. In two volumes it is easier to use than the full OED for general queries; the answer sought is less likely to be buried in a lengthy entry. Also, being shorter has allowed the editors to completely update the dictionary over the different editions, meaning it often reflects new scholarship that has yet to be added to its larger cousin.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Eleventh ed. Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, 2003.

The latest edition of the classic American desktop dictionary. A free version is available online at www.merriam-webster.com. The full 11th edition is available online as a subscription service.

Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia [Historical]

Whitney, William Dwight, and Benjamin Eli Smith. Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia. Edited by Jeffrey A. Triggs and Sara G. Triggs. 2001 Century Dictionary Online ed. New York: The Century Company, 1889-1909. It can be viewed online here.

This is another significant dictionary of its day, now woefully out of date, but still useful for historical purposes. The bulk of the dictionary was published between 1889-1891. A Cyclopedia of Names was added in 1894 and a two-volume supplement was added in 1909.

Oxford English Dictionary

The Oxford English Dictionary Online; http://www.oed.com; Oxford University Press.

This is the single best source of information on the meaning, usage, and history of words in the English language. Oxford University Press publishes a variety of dictionaries and these smaller, but still excellent, dictionaries should not be confused with the comprehensive behemoth that is the OED.

The online version is the third or “New” edition of the venerable dictionary. The first tranche of third edition updates was published in March 2000. Updates are published quarterly. This third edition is the first complete revision of the dictionary. The site is a subscription site. The third edition updates are not available in print.

The first edition of the OED was published in fascicles from 1884-1928. It comprised ten volumes. A one-volume supplement was published in 1933 and a second supplement in 1972. The second edition was published in 1989. It comprises 20 volumes and is available online, on CD-ROM, and in a micro-printed one-volume edition. The second edition is not a complete revision—not all the entries in the first edition were updated. Three volumes of additions to the second edition were published between 1993-97.

An important caveat when using the OED is to always check when the individual entry was written and last updated. Many of the entries are over a century old and don’t reflect the latest scholarship. Older entries should be used with caution. When the third edition is complete this problem should be fixed, at least for a while.

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary

Gove, Philip Babcock, ed. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged. Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, 1993.

Originally published in 1961 and updated with a supplement in 1993, this dictionary has some 450,000 entries. Good, if lacking in detail, etymologies make this a nice factual source for word origins. Available online as a subscription service.

The Collegiate edition is available online for free here.

The Third New International was quite controversial when it was published for being overly permissive in that it eliminated usage labels like “colloquial,” “erroneous,” and “incorrect,” and for innovative editorial practices that discomfited and outraged many. Webster’s Third is somewhat long in the tooth nowadays, but it remains a very useful dictionary.

Historical Dictionary of American Slang

Lighter, J. E., ed. Historical Dictionary of American Slang. Two vols. New York: Random House, 1994-97.

An invaluable source for non-standard, American words and phrases beginning with A–O. A historical dictionary, the HDAS provides comprehensive citations of usage that outline each term’s history. It is a superb supplement to the OED, correcting two innate biases in the first two editions of that dictionary, giving short shrift to American usage and to slang terms. Even though it is incomplete, it is an invaluable resource.

The first two volumes were published by Random House. When that publisher folded its dictionary division, the project was abandoned. Oxford University Press acquired the rights and the database that underlies the dictionary, but is not continuing the project.

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