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Latest Victim of the Internet: The Oxford English Dictionary

That’s right, Oxford University Press is strongly considering going online-only for the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Just because something’s inevitable doesn’t mean it’s not a little bit sad.

The Oxford English Dictionary, currently a 20 volume, 750-pound monstrosity, has been the authoritive word on the words of the English language for 126 years. The OED3, the first new edition since 1989, may also be the first to forgo print entirely, reports the AP.

The Internet is on a physical-media-killing rampage. First BlockBuster, now the venerable OED?

Nigel Portwood, chief executive of the Oxford University Press (isn’t that the perfect name for him?), says online revenue has been so high that it is highly unlikely that the third edition of the OED will be physically printed. The full 20-volume set costs $995 at Amazon, and of course it requires supplementals regularly to account for valuable words like “bootylicious.”

In contrast, the online version, while still (in my mind) very pricey at $295 per year, is successful enough to score about two million hits per year. Nearly $300 per year for a subscription to a dictionary may seem outlandish, but the OED is more than Dictionary.com, with detailed lexographic histories of words that outstrip any other source.

Oxford University Press’s team of lexicographers, 80-strong, is working hard on the OED3, a massive, decade-long task. In fact, the OED3 is only about 25% finished, and nobody seems clear on when it might be ready for release.

In any case, the physical publication of the OED3 depends on demand–if the publisher sees adequate demand, they’ll do a limited printing. If not, the OED will go online-only.

Dan Nosowitz, the author of this post, can be followed on Twitter, corresponded with via email, and stalked in Brooklyn (no link for that one–you’ll have to do the legwork yourself).

About the author

Dan Nosowitz is a freelance writer and editor who has written for Popular Science, The Awl, Gizmodo, Fast Company, BuzzFeed, and elsewhere. He holds an undergraduate degree from McGill University and currently lives in Brooklyn, because he has a beard and glasses and that's the law.

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