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A guide to choosing Oxford dictionaries

The website of Oxford Dictionaries is utterly useless. It doesn’t offer any help in showing the relationship among Oxford’s various dictionary offerings. Even when you visit their product page, it is a rather dull listing with prices and dates.

So, here is what you need to remember:

The only independent dictionaries are the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and the single-volume Oxford Dictionary of English (ODE). All other dictionaries are derivatives (directly or indirectly) of one of these two tomes.


Details below.


The numbers at the end refer to the latest edition and the year of publication:

There are many region-specific variants (India, America, Canada, Australia, etc.), but they’re merely adaptations of their respective UK editions w.r.t spelling and/or pronunciation.

Multi-volume Dictionaries

  1. The Oxford English Dictionary, the latest second edition (OED2) published in 1989, is a 20-volume exhaustive dictionary. If you’re reading this article, then you probably don’t need the OED. It is meant for libraries, educational institutions, language researchers, etc. The 3rd edition is too big to be printed, so it is made being available online. There are rumours that a print edition may be released in the 2030s.

  2. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary is an abridged version of the 20-volume OED. It is only two volumes, spanning 3,800 pages and covers about 6,00,000 words, phrases, etc.

Both of these are “historical”, meaning, they first give the definitions of earliest usage. If you need the current, modern definitions first, then choose the following single-volume dictionaries.

Single-volume Dictionaries

All these prioritize “current English”.

  1. The largest single-volume dictionary is the Oxford Dictionary of English (ODE). It is independent of the OED above. It is created by using Oxford’s English language corpus. The ODE3 (2010) spans 2,112 pages and covers about 3,55,000 words, phrases, etc. It is the official dictionary of the UK show Countdown. A USA-variant of the ODE is the New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD). My guesstimate is that it contains about 1,10,000 headwords.

  2. The next smallest in size is the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. It is the official dictionary of the United Nations. COED12 is an updated concise version of ODE3. The COED12 (2011) spans 1,728 pages and covers 2,40,000 definitions with 66,500 headwords. Earlier editions used to be based on the OED but that’s history. However, starting from the 10th edition, the Concise Oxford is based on the Oxford Dictionary of English (earlier also known as the NODE) rather than the OED.

  3. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary of Current English is somewhat smaller than the Concise (wikipedia). The third edition (2008) spans 1264 pages, covers 1,50,000 definitions and is based on COED11. There is an older 1991 dictionary with a similar name (but without “Current English” in the title), which comes in two-volumes and a magnifying glass 🔎.

  4. The Pocket Oxford English Dictionary is the next smallest in size. It used to be based on the Concise but POED11 (2013) spanning 1104 pages and 1,20,000 entries is based on both the COED12 (hence, ODE3) and Oxford English Corpus. My personal guesstimate is that POED contains about 35,000 headwords. There is another “Paperback Oxford English Dictionary” (2012) which also has 1,20,000 definitions, based on the POED, but comes as a paperback (obviously) instead of the hardcover POED. However, this Paperback is sexist and not as comprehensive as the POED (for example, “fellatio” is defined but not “cunnilingus”) and hence I don’t recommend it. Anyways, the 2013 edition of the Paperback looks like an exact copy of the Pocket, except for the cover binding (compare the preface and random page).

  5. The Little Oxford English Dictionary (and Thesaurus = 2013), 9th edition, first printed in 2006. Up-to-date coverage of 90,000 words, phrases, and definitions. 848 pages. The latest reprint of 9th edition (2018) is based on the Concise Oxford (and hence ODE3). My personal guesstimate is that it contains about 24,000 headwords.

  6. The Oxford English Mini Dictionary, 8th edition in 2013 with 672 pages. The 7th Indian edition published in 2011 has 648 pages. This is smaller than the LOED and is currently based on the ODE3. It has over 90,000 words, phrases, and definitions.

All the above dictionaries are meant for “native” users. If you’re a beginner or student having difficulty in learning English, you could try the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. The 10th edition, published in 2020, has about 1920 pages and 1,85,000 words, phrases, and definitions. Ninth edition, Internet Archive, 2015.

Rant: Seems Oxford University Press (OUP) has stopped printing “normal” dictionaries after 2013. They’re busy dishing out only “Learner’s Dictionaries” every five years (latest in 2020) because that is what brings them money. They currently don’t have any plans to print any other dictionary based on the OED or ODE. (hey, online recurring subscriptions ⮕ more £££).

See also Wikipedia’s comparison of English dictionaries and this stackexchange answer.

All said and done, my favourite pick is The Pocket Oxford. First edited in 1924 by the venerable Fowler brothers (H.W.F and F.G.F) and currently in its eleventh edition (Maurice Waite; 2013), it includes pronunciation and etymology. It caters to my level of academic study and just enough vocabulary covering contemporary literature like newspapers and novels. The Internet archive has copies of the fourth edition (Le Mesurier, 1942, reprinted 1957), the seventh edition (Robert E. Allen, 1984, reprinted 1986; 49,000 words and phrases), the eighth edition (Della Thompson, 1992, reprinted 1996; 65,000 entries and 75,000 definitions), the ninth edition (Catherine Soanes, 2001; 1,20,000 words, phrases and definitions), and the tenth edition (Catherine Soanes, 2005). If you don’t need etymologies, The Little Oxford, first published in 1930 and currently in its ninth edition (2006), is also a good choice (though a bit outdated now).