The OED changed its look last November. Actually, it changed more than just its look, since it also incorporates connections to other databases such as the Historical Thesaurus and the Oxford DNB. Over the past few months the OED has also started to chart some paths into the subscription-only database that is the dictionary. There have been for a while an array of searches that one could perform on the database–by date, source, and so on. Now the editors are starting to develop some more legible ways of interpreting the database, and to make at least some of these more publicly accessible too.
As an example, here is an essay on the First Dictionaries of English. It seems that the specific words linked to in the article are publicly visible. There are also links to the Oxford DNB, however, that aren’t visible without logging on, and neither is the link to the OED database that would describe Thomas Elyot’s dictionary as a source for entries.The essay is one from a page of essays called Aspects of English. This seems to be (hopefully is) just a sketch of what’s planned. There are few, at the moment, and they’re not lengthy. Hopefully the OED envisions them as more than just a marketing tool–I’d love to see these develop into an on-line library of interpretations of the database to which I could send students.
Another new way in, though this one only works by subscription, is a Timelines feature that charts the advent into English of words about different subjects (heraldry, social sciences), from different geographical regions, or from different language groups. The chart, for instance, illustrates when the 45 words in the Dictionary that originate in the Indo-Aryan language Bengali entered into English. This would be interesting to use in concert with the new Google Ngram Viewer that plumbs its book collection for word frequencies.