How words have changed in meaning and usage over time is frequently a hot topic both on here and the wider community, and I find it fascinating. Are there any good reference works which document this kind of thing?

I'd like to be able to look up a word, and see lists of historical meaning, with periods and explanations. Graphs of changing frequency over time are also great. I don't really want a standard dictionary of etymology, because my perception is that the meaning they concentrate on is the current one, which is interesting but not quite the same, but it could be that I'm reading the wrong dictionaries! I suppose a key difference between this and a very good normal dictionary (my Shorter Oxford does have a summary of previous meanings and examples) is the discussion of the reasons behind the meanings, an idea of the process of change, and some kind of selection by the author (I'm less interested in words that essentially have had one fixed uncontroversial meaning).

I'd prefer a real book, but internet resources would also be of interest. This is the kind of thing where individual examples are discussed in some detail on e.g. Language Log, but I'd like to see similar information collected together. If there's nothing in a "dictionary" format, I'd be happy with a book of hand-picked interesting examples (that might even be better!).

  • Possibly this might interest you google.com/… or any book written by David Crystal. Here is a short article of his on English spelling. – Mari-Lou A Sep 23 '14 at 11:13
  • Alternatively this title looks entertaining, I have read some excerpts online and it's very readable. The Lexicographer's Dilemma There's also a version in Kindle. – Mari-Lou A Sep 23 '14 at 11:18
  • Have you ever looked at the full OED? There are no graphs, but they give citations over periods which gives a rough sense of when a meaning was current, and while some senses may not have been updated in a very long time, they at least indicate that too. – Jon Hanna Jan 12 '15 at 12:24
  • Are you aware of Google Ngram? – Hot Licks Aug 16 at 2:37

If you're researching one or more specific words, having many editions of dictionaries from different times, and especially many editions of the same dictionary, can be very instructional to see when meanings change, especially when new meanings arise. Most common (and also with the most editions) is Merriam Webster (specifically, many editions of the Collegiate dating from the 1950s to the present), but perhaps better regarded is American Heritage (with both full/unabridged and "College Editions").

Looking online, I have not found a "good" near-comprehensive list of words that have changed. I'm most interested in words that have change recently (within my lifetime, the last 50 years or so), but I haven't found much of any value over any time period.

The latest change I've observed is "digital music." When music CDs came out they were one of the first well-known commercial "digital" products. Nowadays digital music usually refers only to musical content streamed or downloaded from the Internet, and CDs are considered something separate. There's no place I know of to document this.

For lists of words whose meaning have changed, I found many articles with the same dozen or so "awful" (pun intended) words, but these two links have by far the most words I've seen:



An invaluable online reference for word usage frequency over time is


One problem with ngram if you're looking for recent changes, it only shows word frequencies through the year 2000.

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