Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

Owen Williams - Using the OED On Line

Using the OED On Line
Owen Williams


The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is a wonderful resource for finding out what words used to mean, as well as the full range of meanings in our own usage. Using this dictionary, which cites examples of usage from the beginning of modern English until the present-day, you can chart the interesting shifts in the meanings of English words over the centuries. Any reader of Renaissance texts encounters words that are unfamiliar, or that meant something different then than they do now, or have multiple layers of connotations.

The OED is available both in book and on-line or electronic form. The book is available in the Van Pelt Reference section (at the east end of the entrance level). The on-line OED is accessible through the library's home page and the English Web Page. This exercise will introduce you to searching for words on the OED, and give you some sense of the richness of any given word. Your exercise will be evaluated on the basis of its thoroughness and thoughtfulness, and you and your partner will receive the same grade.


  1. Decide on which word from the antitheatrical tracts (Gosson, Northbrook, or Stubbes) you and your partner want to explore. Some examples are below.
  2. Connect to the on-line OED through
  3. Select "single-term searching"
  4. Choose "search" and press ENTER.
  5. Read about your word: its etymology, its range of meanings at any given time, and its changes over time (note the dates next to each quotation).
  6. Note that you can search for your word in any quotation throughout the whole OED: back at the search menu, you can choose settings, and "search field," and choose "quotation field," which will look for all occurrences of your word in all the quotations in the OED; or "quotation date," where you can limit your search to a century. See Help for Help, or ask the nice librarians at the Reference desk.
  7. Now write up your observations about the multiple meanings of the word around the time it was used in the antitheatrical tract you've chosen:
    • Summarize the multiple meanings of the word that may have been in use at the time Shakespeare and Marlowe were writing (roughly 1590 to 1610), using a quotation from the OED to illustrate each.
    • Identify what you think is the most obvious denotation (i.e., dictionary meaning) of the word in the context in which it is used in the passage.
    • In one or two paragraphs discuss what other meanings might be lurking beneath the surface, and how these other meanings affect your reading of the line, phrase, or passage in which the word occurs.


  • Northbrook (1576)-enterlude/interlude, (to) ravish, (to) forswear, whoredom, (to) blaspheme.
  • Gosson (1579)-invective, caterpillars (of a Commonwealth), mischievous.
  • Stubbes(1583)-anatomy, bawdry, insinuate, wanton, fleering, cosenage/cozenage, (to) cog, (to) devirginate, (to) rove, venery, praemunire.