Internet killed the dictionary star | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 30.08.2010
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Internet killed the dictionary star

Falling sales and the growing popularity of online dictionaries mean the Oxford English Dictionary may never be printed again, its publisher says.

Three German dictionary spines

The market for traditional dictionaries is disappearing, says the OED publisher

For over two decades, dozens of writers have been working on a book that will probably never grace a bookshelf. Online dictionaries have gained so much popularity over their printed counterparts that the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary will probably appear only in electronic form, according to its publisher, the Oxford University Press.

"The print dictionary market is just disappearing, it is falling away by tens of per cent a year," Nigel Portwood, the chief executive of the Oxford University Press, told UK newspaper the Sunday Times. He told the UK newspaper he did not think the third edition would be printed.

The second and 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 almost 300 Euros to access it.

A wider trend towards online

Simon Winchester, author of The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, said the Oxford University Press's move away from print editions of the dictionary "reflects an inevitability" and is part of a growing trend of readers moving away from printed books toward digital editions and electronic e-readers like the Kindle or the iPad.

A man holds an iPad

Dictionary-users are increasingly turning to the internet for their answers

"I think the electronic book is going to achieve ascendancy over the printed book, and I think that the printed book is just starting now to vanish," Winchester said. Though he owns three sets of the printed version of the Oxford English Dictionary, he said he relies on the digital version. "On my iPad, I've used the OED twice if not three times today. But I never ever go to the hardback version. It sits there on the shelf gathering dust, looking beautiful, but I never use it."

Online dictionary keeps better pace

The move away from printed dictionaries could also be helping to create a more accessible OED, and one that evolves better alongside the language that it documents, said Charlotte Brewer, Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University and author of Treasure-House of the Language: the Living OED .

"When the first dictionaries were produced in the Victorian period, the Edwardian period in the UK, there were all sorts of assumptions about what was proper to go into a dictionary – so words to do with sex, and the body, sometimes didn't get in or sometimes were defined in a way that we would regard as inadequate," she said.

Many of the quotations used in older editions of the OED were drawn from historical and literary sources. Now, Brewer said, "the lexicographers can use the web, they can use Google, they have access to an enormous variety of language online, they can instantly access a far broader range of sources. In this way…it's likely to become more democratic."

A magnifying glass held up next to Windows and Google screenshots

The internet offers lexicographers a broader range of sources to draw upon

An 'absolutely enormous' undertaking

Almost one third of a million entries were contained in the second version of the OED, published in hard copy in 1989. Since then, a team of 80 lexicographers have been working on the third edition, though they have completed only 28 percent of the dictionary.

"We're talking about an absolutely enormous amount of data, which in its last printed form occupied 20 volumes," Brewer said. She said the third edition of the dictionary would likely be even larger.

"I think the point is that the cost of this work would be unbelievable - you know, you have to wonder who could possibly afford to buy it," Brewer said.

With the most recent edition weighing in at a hefty 62.9 kilos, an electronic version of edition three would not only be lighter on the hip pocket – it would also be easier on the back.

Author: Sophie Tarr
Editor: Nathan Witkop

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