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Middle English Dictionary (MED)

The Middle English Dictionary, the centerpiece of the Middle English Compendium,, is your best friend for understanding the nuances of Middle English literature. Most of the texts I assign gloss the "hard" words and/or provide a glossary at the end of the textbook, but glosses only get you so far.

The MED is an open source resource -- you don't have to login through the library's website -- so it can be accessed from anywhere:

It is, however, a little fiddly to use. Here's why. Modern dictionaries work because modern English has standardized spelling; Middle English spelling isn't standardized. Because most spelling was done phonetically, you not only have different spellings for different places and times, but one author will spell the same word differently, even in sequential lines. This makes looking up words in the MED frustrating, because your author's spelling may not be the spelling of the headword (the main dictionary entry) used in the MED. The dictionary does, however, also index the most common alternate spellings of the word -- it doesn't have absolutely every permutation, but it's got most of them. You therefore have to think laterally when you're searching the MED.

For that reason, you need to be patient, always use the "headword and forms" option the first time you look for a word, be willing to search variant spellings before you give up, and always truncate with the boolean asterisk. Here's your best-bet order of operations:

  • Make sure you're on the dictionary homepage.
  • Always search "headword (with alternate spellings)," which is the default search setting. If you know the precise dictionary form of your word, you can change the pulldown to just "headword (preferred spelling)."
  • The search box will suggest words as you type; these may or may not be the headwords you're looking for, but keep an eye on the options that come up in case you get lucky.
  • For best results, I recommend truncating your search term with the boolean operator  * (for example, search "shour*" rather than "shoures"). You should get a list of hits from which you can choose the options that look most promising, but that is preferable to the frustration of the "no matches found" screen.
  • When you get that list of hits, think about what part of speech you need; there's no sense looking at verb definitions when your word is a noun.
  • If you are still not getting useful hits, try different forms of your word. Particularly try substituting i/y, s/c, c/k.
  • If you strike out but think you know what the modern cognate is, try searching "Modern English word equivalent" and/or use the OED workaround (see below).

Dr. Nicole Guenther Discenza from the University of South Florida put together two videos for her students on using the MED. These are for the older MED interface; the current interface is a little slicker, but the basic functionality has remained the same, so her videos are still useful.

Here's her basic introduction on the MED:


    And here's her video on making the MED jump through its hoops:



    Oxford English Dictionary (OED)

  (access from on campus; from off campus, go through the UGA library website > Articles & Databases > Databases By Name: O > Oxford English Dictionary. You will need to login via SSO) Hopefully this link will take you straight to the SSO login page.

    • Best if you know the modern equivalent and want to identify different valences or how the meaning has changed over time.
    • The search function is flexible enough that you can often -- but not always -- type the Middle English word into the search field and retrieve useful hits.
    • The OED also has a button in the right-hand panels that will take you directly to the MED entry - an excellent resource if you can't find the word in the MED but you think you know its modern version.
    • On occasion, the OED will provide definitions for words that are not in the MED.

    Dictionary of the Scots Language (access from anywhere)

    •  Like having the OED and the MED unified into a single online dictionary, for the Scots language.
    •  I recommend that you read the opening page on how to use the search functions.
    •  For any text I assign, you will be most interested in the DOST (Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue) definition, although do pay attention to modern meanings as well.