Oxford: out of print, on to the Web

Oxford: out of print, on to the Web

On 30 August, several newspapers reported that the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) would appear only in an online format. There was an undertone of lament in some of the headlines: One reporter said the print version of OED might be dead. Another headline asked, “Will the Internet kill the Oxford English Dictionary?" At least one headline referred to last rites for the publication.

The lament is genuine. OED is the definitive record of the English language, a national icon of England. It is monumental in the huge effort that has gone into it, and magisterial in the authority it wields.

Nigel Portwood, Oxford University Press chief executive, said only an online edition might be released, since “the print dictionary market is disappearing". But a later announcement said no such decision had been taken. Eighty lexicographers are working on the project. One-third of the book has been completed. It will take another 10 years for the dictionary to be published, and a decision on its format will be taken at that time.

The story of OED is an example of dedicated team endeavour. In 1857, the Philological Society of London resolved to launch a project to compile and publish a comprehensive English dictionary, proposed to replace Johnson’s dictionary and include all the words in use as far back as Middle English. It was estimated that the project could be completed in 10 years, and would appear in four volumes. The actual figures turned out to be 70 years and 10 volumes. In 1879, James Murray joined the team as chief lexicographer. The first edition appeared in 1928, but Murray did not live to see the fruition of his labour—he died in 1915.

The second edition was published in 1989. It comprises 20 volumes and weighs around 70kg. It has 291,500 entries, tracing the history of more than half a million words, and with 2.5 million quotations that illustrate the meaning and use of the words.

Three years later, a CD-ROM version was released. This was the beginning of a competition that left the print edition lagging. Only 30,000 copies of the full edition have been sold, and the market for it has been dwindling. The digital version, supported by new electronic reading devices, is gaining popularity and will outpace the printed book.

When a reader buys the printed book, his resource is frozen at that point, and there is limited scope for updating the data. Locating and moving the heavy tome between shelf and table can be cumbersome, since each volume might weigh around 3.5kg. Searching for a word can involve moving forward and backward among the pages, guided by the clue words printed at the top.

Compare the features of the online edition, which tempt users to shift their loyalties. Physically, it saves shelf space in the library. As for content, it is a treasure house of information on the language. It traces the history of 600,000 words, including all the words used in the English language going back 1,500 years. It provides access to the entire second edition of 20 volumes, and three “additions". It has recorded 20 million hits per month from subscribers.

With this digital version, the user is always up to date. Every three months, new words and revisions of existing words are recorded. In the last two quarters, for example, the dictionary added right brain, Generation Y, toxic waste, animal rightist, ringtone and even rasta roko from India. The search function online is versatile, with options such as keyword search, restricted search, wildcard search and Boolean search: a mouse click captures all. This is clearly beyond the scope of a search in a print version.

Incidentally, tree-hugging environmentalists will get a bonus: The dictionary will be paperless and our forests will escape depletion.

As The Guardian remarked, OED is “the Internet’s biggest, most prestige-laden reference book".

VR Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.

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