Gasp! The Third Edition of the OED May Never Be Printed

Logophiles, put your down your magnifying glasses! The Oxford English Dictionary will not print another edition. Because of the Internet’s increasing impact on the sales figures of the venerable tome, the next edition of the OED will most likely appear online only. As the Telegraph reported on Sunday:

A team of 80 lexicographers has been working on the third edition of the OED – known as OED3 – for the past 21 years.

The dictionary’s owner, Oxford University Press (OUP), said the impact of the internet means OED3 will probably appear only in electronic form.

The most recent OED has existed online for more than a decade, where it receives two million hits a month from subscribers who pay an annual fee of £240 [about $370].

“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.”

According to the OED website, its first edition came out in 1928, and the second in 1989. In between, several supplemental volumes were released, in 1933 and from 1972 to 1986. The latest full edition is still available, either in a twenty-volume hardcover set (for $995 on Amazon), or in a compact edition with “micrographic text” and a complimentary magnifying glass (for $400).

In 2009, the twenty-volume 1989 edition was also re-released with an accompanying CD-ROM. That version costs a whopping $1,290, which, to me, suggests that the OED folks have known for a while that people will pay for the convenience of on-screen searchability; not to mention portability.

Update: the Oxford University Press is backpedaling from Portwood’s probably-hypothetical statement, and is now saying that it’s too early to tell what the next edition will look like; it’s still another decade from completion. A spokeswoman said, “[w]e have no plans to stop publishing print dictionaries.”

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner