Sad news for those of us with fond memories of long minutes lost in the more arcane histories of English words: the third edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, which a team of 80 lexicographers has been working on since 1989, will probably never be printed. “The print dictionary market is just disappearing,” Oxford University Press CEO Nigel Portwood said on August 29. It will still be available online — in fact, in December, the web version is being relaunched, including for the first time the historical thesaurus of the OED, which contains almost every word in English from Old English to the present. The problem is that it is a tad pricey: £7 plus VAT for a week's access; £205 plus VAT for a year.
Luckily, there are alternatives: This paper's preferred arbiter, in its print version, the pocket version is available free online — though, it must be said, boasting some rather confusing orthography. The second entry for the word “help”, for example, reads “2. to contribute to, to help Latin America's economies” — some italics, or brackets, or bold letters would help. You can buy a 1,888-page hard copy for £70, or download it for a mere £9.99.
The Chambers 21st Century Dictionary, with its 75,000 words and phrases and 110,000 definitions, is free online. This is much more presentable, with quite satisfying lists of definitions, and examples of the word in context.
A little bit of etymology, too. Chambers is not, however, accepting new subscribers to the full shebang — 170,000 words and phrases and 270,000 definitions. The 1,871-page print version sells for £40.
The definitions are short and to the point, with no information about sources or background (though there are sample phrases, and a direct link to a thesaurus). It also lets you submit words of your own, and gives you the option of British or American English. Macmillan's particular wheeze, useful to learners of English, is to highlight the 7,500 core, high-frequency words in the English language: three-star words are the most frequent; one-star words less so. It's free online, but you'll pay £24 for a hard copy.
A real discovery, this online site trawls 18,967,499 words in 1,060 different dictionaries — all the major English ones, but also dictionaries for specific subjects (business, art, medicine) or languages. You can customise your search — only in slang, for example; compare entries in different dictionaries; do a wildcard search (asterisks, hashtags or @ symbols account for the characters you can't remember), or a reverse search (type in “being tried twice for the same crime”, for “double jeopardy”, for example). It doesn't, however, link to a Scrabble dictionary, which some might feel is an important omission. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010