Tuesday, August 31, 2010


OED3: printed, or not?

’Tis sad news, indeed: the Oxford English Dictionary will probably cease printed versions and will make the upcoming 3rd edition online only.

The print dictionary market is just disappearing, it is falling away by tens of per cent a year, Nigel Portwood, the chief executive of OUP, told the Sunday Times. Asked if he thought the third edition would be printed, he said: I don’t think so.

Almost one third of a million entries were contained in the second version of the OED, published in 1989 across 20 volumes.

The next full edition is still estimated to be more than a decade away from completion; only 28 per cent has been finished to date.

It’s sad, in that the world will miss a beautifully bound piece of work. No more will we be able to heft a volume and see several pages of definitions and references for just a single word. The OED is the most researched word reference there is.

But it’s not just a large tome: it’s a large set of large tomes. It takes up a great deal of shelf space, it’s very expensive (Amazon sells it for $1300, but they’re out of stock as I write this), and it takes them more than 30 years to put out a new edition, once they decide to get started. It’s sad that it probably won’t be printed, but it’s not surprising.

With an online version, users can access entries quickly and easily from their computers — and these days, that means iPads, iPhones, BlackBerry devices, and others of that sort — untethered from the couple-of-dozen weighty volumes, however nicely bound they be. Updates can go in incrementally, so every time you access what’s there, you get the latest version, with whatever updates they’ve put in. And cross-references are right there, simple and quick. When puggle sends you to echidna, which sends you to monotreme, you can flip from one to another with a click — you don’t have to run to the shelf to pick up a different volume.

Of course, even the online version is expensive. £240 is about $370, and that’s the annual fee — four years of that, and you’ve paid more than what Amazon wants for the printed second edition. Of course, you’re also paying for the convenience of having it online, as I note above. But ten or twenty years of twenty-pound-a-month subscription fees really add up.

The official word of Oxford University Press is that another printed version is still possible. I’m sure they want to keep their options open as they test the waters with this announcement. And they’ll still print the other, smaller editions, which abound: the Compact OED, the Concise OED, the Shorter OED, the collegiate version, the pocket version, and so on.

It really is a sign of the times.


Thomas J. Brown said...


This is truly sad news.

For years I've wanted to buy a printed volume of the OED, and my plan was to purchase the 3rd edition once it was released (I assumed that I would be able to afford it by then).

I hope they decide to release a printed version after all.

Nathaniel Borenstein said...

The OED has in fact been available as two huge tomes, rather than many large ones. The so-called "compact" edition essentially prints the whole thing 4-up in a tiny font on folio pages. It came in a box that includes a drawer with a magnifying glass.

My wife's grandfather gave me this edition. It was one of the most useful gifts I ever received.
But my Droid can do much more.

Barry Leiba said...

Right; in this case, “compact” == “microscopic”, at least in reference to the type size.