I am trying to find the most authoritative English dictionary that is both online and freely accessible. The OED is (controversially?) considered by many to be the most authoritative of the (British) English dictionaries – why?

If there is no general consensus about, or no way to objectively assess, what makes a dictionary authoritative, then that would be a reasonable answer here.

I am not interested in opinion-based answers; i.e., what dictionaries people prefer or like. But I would like to know if there is another authoritative option in lieu of OED, or if there a way of judging for oneself what makes a dictionary authoritative and reliable.

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    How would you objectively define what makes one dictionary more authoritative than another? Commented Sep 12, 2022 at 22:52
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    Notwithstanding its multiple underlying errors mischaracterizing the OED, this question remains on balance principally a request for freebie online resources, and so I’ll be migrating it to our meta where it consequently belongs.
    – tchrist Mod
    Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 0:55
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    Thank you for migrating this. Could you explain what the multiple underlying errors are? My intention is not to mischaracterise or denigrate the OED in any way. Would you also be able to explain what is wrong with a request for online authoritative resources, free or not? Your use of the informal word "freebie" suggests disdain. There are many free-to-use dictionaries online. How to assess which to use? Thank you. Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 1:21
  • Since you seem to have done preliminary research into the various dictionaries, it might give us all a good start to list the ones available (free or by cost) and then we can respond as to authority. Somewhere on meta.elu there is a FAQ about the different dictionaries, this might well be a repeat, or it could be a direct addition to that one. Also note that in some sense anything anybody says here about the relative -quality- is going to be opinion-based, but meta is an OK place for that and also the opinions should be justifiable (by appeals to experience and knowledge of the answerer).
    – Mitch
    Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 13:40
  • It might be good to do a wikipedia style comparison table of dictionaries with factual columns like availability (online, paper only, both), price (free, subscription, one-time payment), order of entries (first introduction, popularity of meaning), authorship (single person, team of scholars, team of anybody), quotations (from published text, made-up, no), coverage of varieties (AmE, BrE, AusE, etc), etymology (yes/no), spelling variants (yes/no). A separate tabkle might be made for online dictionary aggregators like google's 'definition' or freedictionary or dictionary.com or lexico.com
    – Mitch
    Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 13:47
  • This is a start Wikipedia's comparison of English Dictionaries but barely touches on the things I mentioned
    – Mitch
    Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 13:51
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    Nothing online and free is authoritative. OED is online but not free. Possibly the PIE list of roots at the free dictionary is authoritative; it cites sources. Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 17:51
  • @JohnLawler That and the list of Semitic roots of English words are directly from the American Heritage Dictionary's appendices. But it would be strange for those two be authoritative and the rest of AHD not to be.
    – Mitch
    Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 18:11
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    There is a danger of this question leading to an infinite regress. Suppose one of us answers 'X is the most authoritative dictionary' and somebody else says 'Y is the most authoritative dictionary'. How are we to tell whether the first or the second person's pronouncement is the authoritative one? And if a third person then says 'The first person is the authority on the authoritativeness of dictionaries', how are we to know whether that pronouncement is authoritative?
    – jsw29
    Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 20:53
  • @Mitch thanks for engaging in a positive, welcoming, and constructive way. Some StackExchange sites can be pretty hostile, demoralising environments these days. I will have a good look at the links you have provided. It may help to start with defining what is understood here by "authoritative". I suspect my understanding is different from that of others. Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 21:07
  • @jsw29 My question is "How does one assess the authoritativeness of a dictionary?" not "What is the most authoritative?" You too have the same question I do. How does one know what is authoritative? Fundamentally, this is a question about critical thinking. Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 21:16
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    @jsw29 If there is a clear entity that every one agrees on is the best, then even if it is a mutual hallucination, it is still authoritative by fiat. But we can still come up with some objective principles to judge.
    – Mitch
    Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 21:17
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    @Mitch, it may be debatable whether convergence would amount to authoritativeness, but I agree that if we find the convergence, that would stop the regress for most practical purposes. Where my comment was ultimately going, though, is that authoritativeness may not be the right word for the OP's purposes because it presupposes an institutional framework, which doesn't exist for English language as a whole. Also, there may be something problematic about applying the notion of authoritativeness to dictionaries that are based on descriptivist principles.
    – jsw29
    Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 22:33
  • @CharlesRoper, the same regress appears with the former question. If one person says 'A dictionary is authoritative if it has the characteristics A, B, and C' and another person says 'No, a dictionary is authoritative if it has the characteristics D, E, and F', the question will arise whether the first or the second person's list of criteria is the authoritative one.
    – jsw29
    Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 22:37

2 Answers 2

  • OED is the best ever, and you probably have free access to it somehow (but you may have to look for it).
  • You can assess quality systematically by choosing some set of characteristics that are objectively measured. Those characteristics should include:
    • number of entries (semantically different definitions) per term (a proxy for nuance)
    • length of entries (a proxy for descriptiveness of the definition
    • entries on etymology
    • variety of spellings, variety of pronunciation
    • specification of varieties (register, geography, technical area, etc etc)
    • frequency information (how common a word it is)
  • You can assess quality quickly by taking a small set of words and comparing their definition in all the dictionaries.

There are some characteristics not mentioned. Part of speech is managed by the entry labels. Accuracy of the actual definitions would take a statistical analysis of the content. This latter is probably the -one- thing you care about and not all that scholarly drivel above. But it is also probably the most subjective of criteria.

These are ways of assessing but I don't they have been done. But by inspection of any dictionary's entries you can quickly compare.

There is a general consensus that the OED, in book or print form, is the best dictionary in English, in the all around quality, accuracy, and amount of content of its entries.

  • Its definitions are concise while but not too concise.
  • It has subentries for each semantic nuance to a term.
  • It has phrases including a term.
  • It has the currently accepted etymology.
  • It has multiple instances of the term used in the wild, including the first known use.

While other dictionaries may do any one of these, the OED combines all of them.

By authoritative, I think you imply some slightest bit of prescription - if there is a dispute about correctness, which choice should be made. While that is a practical goal for many users of dictionaries, it may incur too much contention. There is no academy (à la française) of a few highly regarded people of letters behind it (as much as the French Academy is an authority, the French language still changes and adds new words without them. Also the AF does not produce a reference book like a dictionary or grammar). The many people behind the OED include a history of editorial group, a set of scholars writing the definitions, plus hundreds of people who find earlier and earlier instances of first sightings of each word.

The OED is not perfect. It is rife with factual errors, omissions, typos, bad dates, and questionable life choices. That said, any other dictionary is much much rifer. For example, the OED is pretty good at assessing whether a word is more AmE or BrE (using 'primarily' as a marker). But it is (supposedly (I have heard)) not so great at varieties with smaller populations or less media presence (AAE, AusE, IrE, ScotE, and on and on). But really do the other dictionaries come close to that? Also it is supposedly not very good with taboo words or slang. Oh well, Urban Dictionary does excel at that.

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    My last sentence is not a jab at Urban Dictionary. It is very good at giving you a good vague idea about slang you just came across. But as its entries are often written by people who are not attuned to nuance, there is a lot of variation in quality.
    – Mitch
    Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 20:21
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    When I do 'definition {some word}', here's how I assess the results: I ignore the google stuff at top (it is usually too short to be usable in the situation where I want a definition), also their etymology doesn't interest me (etymonline will give interesting details). I look for Merriam-Webster first (their entries usually confirm what I'm looking for, I speak AmE). If I realize I'm looking at a word spoken by someone British, I'll use Collins or Cambridge (if they appear in the google results). I usually avoid freedictionary or dictionary,com because their entries seem oversimplified.
    – Mitch
    Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 20:29
  • Thanks, Mitch, for this useful answer - I'm very grateful to you. So much to think about here. You're right with your suspicion about "if there is a dispute about correctness, which choice should be made". It doesn't happen all that often but does sometimes. My usual definition lookup method relies on DuckDuckGo bangs, most often !cd <word> (Collins) and !onelook <word>. The latter is good for quickly opening a bunch of sources for comparison. Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 21:56
  • 'you probably have free access to it [the OED] somehow (but you may have to look for it).' This is definitely true. Commented Sep 14, 2022 at 19:55

The OED is not a dictionary of British English, but of all English. Wikipedia calls the OED the principal historical dictionary of the English language. The OED itself says that As a historical dictionary, the OED is very different from those of current English, in which the focus is on present-day meanings

The OED itself makes no claim of Authority, as that word does not really make sense in this context. Rather, it simply documents the historical record, nothing more and nothing less. In this it has no peer: you will not find anything else like it (at least in English) for what it does.

There are many, many other kinds of dictionary besides historical dictionaries, including specialist dictionaries and lexicons, each serving its own dedicated purpose. Indeed the OED often refers you to those many others for further studies. But you need to realize that when it does so, these are all always actual published dictionaries, meaning that they are always in actual print, not mere online lookups.

Your requirement that any resource be not only electronically accessible but also completely gratis so severely restricts available possibilities that it calls into question the purpose your requested resource would serve. Most everything ever published in English remains completely unavailable electronically, including almost all dictionaries, many of them of unique usefulness. Even Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged of 1961, their most ambitious dictionary, is unavailable electronically.

So you should probably explain why you have attached those restrictions to your resource request. In other words, what good would such a resource do that could not be better served without those austere restrictions?

  • Thank you for the response. I'll split my comments into two comments. The errors you point out are Wikipedia's, not mine. As indicated by my "controversially?" link, I am not sure about the facts presented in the Wikipedia article. I suggest you inspect the Reception and Criticism section. The history of the OED page linked as a reference there does indeed make this claim: "The Dictionary had taken its place as the ultimate authority on the language." It is Stefan Dollinger, a lexicographer at the University of British Columbia, that made the claim the OED is British-centric. Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 10:09
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    My requirement for an electronic resource that is freely available is pragmatic. We are facing a cost-of-living crisis in the UK, I am not wealthy, and I simply cannot afford to pay for the OED - many other people are in a similar boat. I am not a scholar or academic. It is elitist and exclusionary to suggest there are no options other than to pay subscription fees for a good quality dictionary. But even if your opinion is that all free dictionaries are worthless, that doesn't logically negate my question - it makes it all the more important! Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 10:21
  • I currently use OneLook to trawl through various free dictionaries. The list of results that typically appears on OneLooks does not suggest to me that electronically accessible and gratis options are severely restricted. I personally like Collins for a number of reasons, but, as I say, I am not an expert, so I do not know how to judge which of the resources that appear on OneLook are worthy of attention, and which are not. My question is grounded in the fact that I and many others simply cannot afford the OED and would like to know what the next best available alternative(s) would be. Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 10:32
  • To answer your question about what the purpose of the requested resource would be, it is for me to look up the following (ideally): word definitions, pronunciation (audio, ideally), basic etymology, variant spellings, synonyms, antonyms, quotations, usage examples, earliest know usages, trends, British and American usage. The free online Collins serves all these purposes and is fine for my needs. But I do not know how "authoritative" it is in relation to other dictionaries, hence my questions here. Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 10:48
  • Further discussion on how OED considers itself an authority can be found here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oxford_English_Dictionary#cite_note-104 Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 11:10
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    @CharlesRoper If you are living in the UK, and if you are a member of a library, I understand that you can enjoy free access to the online OED. The masterpiece is a marvellous piece of "engineering" in that it attempts to trace the history of English words, their meanings, usages and spelling. It quotes from great works of literature. It is thorough but not terribly up-to-date. Some definitions have not been updated in a hundred years.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 16:06
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    @CharlesRoper I do not have a subscription, even if the price has dropped to £100 per annum, it still remains too expensive for a person like myself. However, take a look at this entry free of charge, and then decide whether the OED merits its lofty position.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 16:11
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    Why is it not elitist to demand authoritative sources? What authority do you recognize? And are you willing to pay for it (authority is never free)? Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 17:55
  • @Mari-LouA many thanks for the suggestions. I do indeed love to visit the library here in the UK when I can. I love to take my laptop and work there. Perfect atmosphere. However, the closest one to me is a fairly long drive or bus journey, so not very practical to use regularly. The free OED entry you link to is indeed a wonderful thing. It's a Rolls Royce dictionary. But the level of detail is well beyond the needs of a pleb like me. I only need a Ford Focus dictionary - simple, good quality, dependable. Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 20:27
  • @JohnLawler I didn't demand an authoritative source. I asked what the most authoritative free and online dictionary is. And I asked if there is an authoritative source in lieu of OED. And I asked if there is even a way to judge authoritativeness. I do not believe I demanded anything. By authoritative, I mean recognised or accepted as being true or reliable; good quality; dependable. E.g., Collins because of its respected brand, its history, and its resources seems like an authoritative source by that definition. Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 20:48
  • @JohnLawler And it's untrue to say authority is never free. It can be made freely available. Just visit a public library if you don't believe me. Of course, nothing is ever truly free. Every product of human endeavour has to be paid for in some way by someone. But that doesn't mean it can't be made freely available. I know this because I spent 13 years at a record centre making authoritative environmental data available for free to those that need it. Concrete example of authoritative, free, open data: gov.uk/government/statistics/… Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 20:55
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    @CharlesRoper, after all this back-and-forth it is still not clear why you insist on formulating your enquiry in terms of authoritativeness. For example, if one knows that many highly conscientious people work to minimise the likelihood of errors creeping into some dictionary, one can say that it is highly reliable. What is the point of then asking 'I know that this dictionary is reliable, but is it authoritative?'
    – jsw29
    Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 22:56
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    Right. There is in fact no Authority about language, except failure to communicate. Hence if you find such Authority, it is self-promoted. Authority is an abstract political term. Authoritativeness is a very, very abstract term. Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 23:39
  • @jsw29 I don't insist. I am not an expert and if authoritativeness is the wrong word or problematic, which it does indeed appear to be, then I welcome a steer on that. I'm here to learn. The word reliable works for me just fine. It looks like authoritative is used in different ways and that may be causing some confusion. It looks like for some it means reliable, confident, and respected, while for others it means official and complete. I always meant it in the former sense - sorry for any confusion. What does OED have to say about it? :) Commented Sep 14, 2022 at 0:07
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    No one else has put in the investment or the centuries to do what the OED did. They have around two and a half million example sentences, which contain every word one can think of, used in every possible construction and idiom. The examples alone are worth it. Commented Sep 14, 2022 at 18:25

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