I'm often curious about how the meanings of English words have evolved over time.

I have a copy the 1913 Webster's, and it's very useful.

But ideally I would like to have a copy for each decade, or even each year. And It would be nice to have it further back in time than 1913, too.

It would, of course, be possible to contact a large number of antique bookshops and then buy dozens of old dictionary books from different years, but that sounds, mildly speaking, inconvenient. Obviously having everything digitally would be easier.

Is this available at all? How can get a hold of such a resource?

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    Recently, I needed to look up some words in old dictionaries online. Google Books has Thomas Sheridan's General Dictionary of the English Language, Volume 1 (1780) and John Walker's Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1791). The quality of the scans is not great for the pronunciation symbols, but otherwise it all seems to be readable. Apr 27, 2016 at 6:45
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    I'd think of University libraries (they hold many editions of dictionaries), used books dealers or antiquarians ... the problem with digitisation is the beginning of copyright (currently somewhere in 1930es). Digitised resources are either recent or very old. Apr 27, 2016 at 9:29
  • @jknappen Exactly. I guess in 2104 we'll finally have a good, legal resource.
    – Fiksdal
    Apr 27, 2016 at 9:35

5 Answers 5


For old dictionaries, you can go to the Gutenberg Project and search for dictionaries. There are some old ones there.

An alternative to using dictionaries for investigating meaning change over time is to look at actual examples of how words are used over time. For this, a good tool is the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA). It is a corpus of 400 million words, sampled by decade between 1810-2009. If you search for a word, it will give you the number of times the word was used in the texts for each decade. If you click on the number, you can see the actual text samples with the word from that decade.


In a world of data, it should be a trivial matter to find the definition of any word from any dictionary in any given year... that Gutenberg has a centuries old dictionary, well that’s nice I suppose... and we can always look up current definitions... but this describes a gap of well over a century. This is astounding to me... I can find the chest size of any porn star that has ever lived, but I can’t find out what “racism” meant in 1960. Sakes alive.

So, it would seem that the only answer it to literally canvas used book stores in hopes of collecting maybe one dictionary for each decade. This is crazy to me, given how little data this represents... but I think is the only answer.

  • It almost seems intentional, doesn't it? I've noticed that many modern reprints of old reference materials tend to be abridgements of the original texts, often omitting anything that introduces nuance. For example, the difference between the words "inalienable" and "unalienable"
    – pbarney
    Aug 24 at 17:12

You can find free ebooks on Google Books, usually works too old to be currently copyrighted. There’s a decent selection of English dictionaries there (and even more bilingual English dictionaries). You can restrict the publication date to a specific range of years or browse results sorted by date.


The Oxford English Dictionary contains copious information on the history of every word. It's available online and has awesome search capabilities.

If you can make it to Tokyo there's a little bookshop (or was, 10+ years ago) that sells nothing but dictionaries and grammars. piles and piles of them.


If you have access to any university network, simply search for dictionaries in their databases. Most universities will have what you are searching for. I needed less than 5 min to find over 20 dictionaries ranging from 1735 to the present day.

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