The Oxford English Dictionary Is Dead. Long Live the Oxford English Dictionary!

August 30, 2010

Once again, while driving home, I nearly drove off the road while listening to the news report on the radio. It seems that Oxford University Press, the publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary, has all but announced that there will not be another print version of their dictionary.  So, what does that mean?

The Oxford English Dictionary is not your everyday dictionary.  It has over 500,000 defined words.  You aren’t going to throw this dictionary in your backpack:  It weighs 130 pounds and is comprised of 20 volumes.  You’re going to be in big trouble if you lose this book because it costs over $1,100.  It is widely considered the authoritative resource when it comes to the English language.  While there is much hyperbole and wringing of hands over the demise of this library stalwart, I don’t think I can join in.  I think this development was inevitable and could eventually be a very good thing.

There are many resources that are actually better in the digital environment.  Some of the benefits of online resources include the ability to conduct a keyword search, the ability to update and enhance the resource daily, and the ability to provide extensive volumes of information without dedicating physical space to that end.  Dictionaries, encyclopedias, and indexes cry out  to live digitally.  Think about it.   The OED was last published in 1989.  Since then, 80 lexicographers have been working every day to update the next edition. As of right now, they are only 28 percent finished.  Why does it take so long?  Words come into use very quickly.  The OED documents where the first usage occurred and includes quotations using the word in context.  In a digital world, this is a perfect application for hypertext.  To duplicate that functionality is very difficult and very time consuming in a print environment.

I think if someone were to take this announcement as the end of the OED, that person would be mistaken.  The OED is merely migrating from the print-on-paper medium to a digital medium.  The OED will still be the authoritative resource when it comes to the English language.  However, instead of driving to the library and searching the ranges of shelves to find it, you will be able to visit it 24/7/365 from a library’s online virtual library.

Wait a minute.  If you have a Mid-Continent Public Library card, can’t you do that already?

Steven V. Potter
Director of Libraries    



I first heard of the OED when I was in high school acting class and we were assigned to do "one-act" plays. We had selected "Corybungus" by Stephen Bittrich and realised that there was an OED at the library. We promptly looked up the word in there. It's an amusing play if you've never seen it and taught us about the wonders of looking something up in a dictionary with twenty volumes.

A great book about the making of the OED

"The professor and the madman : a tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English dictionary " by Simon Winchester.

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