Oxford English Dictionary may never appear again on bookshelves

The publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary say that its unlikely the next edition will ever appear in printed form.

The dictionary in question is the full-blown, multi volume edition rather than shorter versions. The second and current edition, published in 1989, runs to 21,500 pages and has just short of 300,000 entries.

Work on the third edition has been underway since that time and is currently 28% complete, with entries from mahurat and rococoesque finished as of June this year. (Each completed batch is added to an online version at the OED site.)

The reason editors started at M is because the sheer time it takes to produce the dictionary means that entries completed later on tend to be more accurate and current and, well, it seemed unfair that A should suffer again! To limit the effect, the editors switch focus every three months, alternating between working their way through entries alphabetically and concentrating on the most prominent words.

The chief executive of publishers at Oxford University Press has now made headlines by saying he thinks a printed version of the third edition is unlikely, arguing that the market for printed dictionaries is currently collapsing.

A spokeswoman for OUP later clarified that: “It’s likely to be more than a decade before the full edition is published and a decision on format will be taken at that point. Lexicographers are currently preparing the third edition of the OED, which is 28 per cent complete. No final completion date is yet confirmed.”

When exactly the dictionary will appear is also a mystery. Based on the current pace of work, it wouldn’t be until 2064, though one writer has previously claimed the schedule is for somewhere around 2037.

Either way, it’s clearly so far away that it’s impossible to predict how publishing will work at that point. If you assume the third edition will indeed be ready in 27 years, trying to imagine the form it will appear in is equivalent to somebody from 1983 (perhaps a WarGames viewer watching thermonuclear war averted with a game of tic-tac-toe) trying to imagine the Kindle.

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