Redifining the OED: Aging Tome Commits Digital Hara-Kiri

noun \ˈdik-shə-ˌner-ē, -ˌne-rē\
archaic: a reference book containing words alphabetically arranged along with information about their forms, pronunciations, functions, etymologies, meanings, and syntactical and idiomatic uses. Historically dictionaries were printed on paper and bound between leather covers. [see: book, library, reading, obsolete]

It’s been coming for a while now: the unbookification of the Oxford English Dictionary. The publisher told the Associated Press Sunday that the next version of the reference series might not be printed on paper, but only available to online subscribers at

Nigel Portwood, chief executive of Oxford University Press, told The Sunday Times in an interview he didn’t think the newest edition will be printed. “The print dictionary market is just disappearing. It is falling away by tens of percent a year,” he said.

His comment related primarily to the full-length dictionary, but he said the convenience of the electronic format also is affecting demand for its shorter dictionaries.

It’s hard not to cringe at the idea of the OED, the world’s seminal authority on the English language, going out of print, but let’s be real for a minute. The full edition is 20 volumes, 22,000 pages and costs $995. Even if I had a grand to throw at a dictionary I wouldn’t have anywhere to put it. And I’m the kind of nerd who gazes fondly from across the room at her New Shorter OED like it’s a cute boy with glasses holding a puppy. Your average Joe isn’t going to consider dropping a G on a book of words.

The full volume has sold just 30,000 copies — since 1989. It was never a truly consumer product. But the website, which offers subscription-only access to the definitions of over half a million words for an annual fee of $295, gets 2 million hits a month. In an increasingly illiterate world, that’s pretty good.

Until you compare it to Twitter, which gets 100 times that. Sigh.

3 responses to “Redifining the OED: Aging Tome Commits Digital Hara-Kiri

  1. I’m actually surprised that with the $295 annual fee doesn’t deter that many people. 2 million hits a month? That seems unbelievably high. Sure, Oxford is a very reliable and trustworthy source. But I would have imagined that far more people would’ve abandoned truth for free “truthiness” if it saved them $295.

  2. Are we living in an “increasingly illiterate world,” or is the world simply becoming less articulate?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s