Oxford English Dictionary: Killed And Saved By The Internet

from the information-overload dept

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) describes itself -- with somewhat un-British immodesty -- as "the definitive record of the English language." It's certainly big:
The 20 volume Oxford English Dictionary is an unrivalled guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of over half a million words

The Dictionary traces the evolution of over 600,000 words from across the English-speaking world through 2.4 million quotations
This is all yours for a mere £750 (about $1250). But if you're keen to adorn your bookshelves with its hefty volumes, you'd better hurry: The Telegraph reports that this may be the last edition sold as physical books:
Publishers fear the next edition will never appear in print form because its vast size means only an online version will be feasible, and affordable, for scholars.
Thanks to the Internet, then, the OED will live on in a digital form, at least. Ironically, though, it is the Internet that is killing the print version, and making production of the next edition harder than ever:
"Although the internet has made access easier," said [OED chief editor] Mr Proffitt, "it's also created the dilemma of information overload.

"In 1989, we looked for five years' recorded usage before a word entered the dictionary. Now, it's 10 years because there is so much more material to sift through."


He said his team working on the definition of new entries has a target of 50 to 60 words a month, slower than in the past because the world wide web has created so much more source material.

Mr Proffitt said: "I averaged about 80 when I started because, in 1989, we didn’t have computers on our desks, so there was a limit to how much you could research. The library was our primary resource."
And if that sounds slow, bear in mind that one researcher spent nine months revising definitions for the word "run." Whether or not there is a printed version, the plan is to have the next edition finished in 2034. But there could be some slippage there, if previous editions are anything to go by:
The first edition, mooted in 1858 with completion expected in 10 years, took 70 years.
So it might be best to buy the current edition while you can. As well as being "the definitive record of the English language," it will also probably become a collector's item, a monument to a pre-digital age -- and a symbol of the Internet's power both to save and destroy.

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Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. icon
    DaveHowe (profile), Apr 25th, 2014 @ 1:37am

    Not seeing....

    Why the only two choices would be "paper" or "internet"
    I would have thought "DVD" "Software" or "eBook" - can certainly see a dedicated OED kindle-style device, too.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 25th, 2014 @ 1:59am

    Re: Not seeing....

    Why would you want any of those, though? It's not as if any university level educational establishment is going to lack an internet connection. At that point, every non-internet option becomes pretty much a pointless sink for time and resources in order to put the information into a less-useful, less-adaptable, less-searchable format.
    Sure, you're correct that those are all "choices", but so are "carved into a stone tablet", or "tattooed onto a herd of angry badgers".

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Andy, Apr 25th, 2014 @ 2:20am

    Re: Not seeing....

    If you had followed any of the links to the sites in question you would see that they have a cd available for the collection, amazingly you can also give suggestions for words if you find any reference to them online. I.e. For the word skive there is reference to it in a 1919 magazine referencing army slang. Very interesting and could encourage many people to waste their time reading through some of the most amazing stories about how words came to be, love it and just wish it was free for all to search .

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. icon
    TenguTech (profile), Apr 25th, 2014 @ 2:26am

    Re: Not seeing....

    Would you would probably need multiple DVDs to fit the whole thing. Blue-ray disk would be more likely to fit it.

    But, hosted on the 'cloud' it is easier to keep up to date, and publish errata.

    Although, who know what tech will be available for it when it is published in 2034 ?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. icon
    Ninja (profile), Apr 25th, 2014 @ 2:34am

    In this specific case I can see the lack of feasibility to maintain the printed version. Making it digital makes it much easier to search for terms and handle the whole work. Maintaining proper backups (that could include a printed copy at some places) should suffice.

    Still, I own an ebook reader and I still like to have the paper version. The reader gives me mobility. When at home, I always choose the paper version.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. icon
    G Thompson (profile), Apr 25th, 2014 @ 2:50am

    I still own a full version of Encyclopaedia Brittanica (1992) as well as the "Great Books" Collection (2nd Edition - 60 Volumes) that they also published. As well as that I also have the Complete Oxford (updated with annotations) including theasurus's etc.

    Interestingly I also have an older 1924 Encyclopedia as well which actually in some respects has more data in some respects (ie: "gunpowder recipes and practical uses") and is great to see how things change but also stay the same too.

    As well as that I also have Blacks Legal Dictionaries ( a few editions) etc etc.

    Though all of the above (bar the 1924 Encyclopedia) I also can obtain in electronic form to read and search at my convenience I still to this day prefer paper based books fr research and the enjoyment of reading and learning. Luckily I have instilled that sense into both my daughters who though "google' everything still would rather READ via paper.

    Long live the OED and somehow I suspect the volumes will still be printed every so often.. might be a few decades between them though

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. icon
    PaulT (profile), Apr 25th, 2014 @ 2:55am

    Re: Not seeing....

    "I would have thought "DVD" "Software" or "eBook""

    Two of those were made obsolete as profitable choices by the internet before the print book. Remember all those reference CD-ROMs that cluttered shelves in the late 90s? Seen those around recently?

    While an eBook might be a better choice than the other 2, that inevitably suffers from the same problem (it's quickly outdated) while anyone with an eBook reader can reasonably be assumed to have internet access. If you keep needing to access the internet all the time to keep it updated, why not simply use existing software to download and store the website itself?

    Those might be reasonable ideas but, combined with the fact that none of them have the cachet and collectability of a printed book, they're ultimately niche products at best.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 25th, 2014 @ 2:56am

    Re: Re: Not seeing....

    Text takes up far less storage than pictures, video and music. A 1,000 page book, which is a large book, takes a little over 10MB as a pdf. The OED will fit onto a CD, with room to spare for a couple more similar sized multi volume works.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    Nicolas (profile), Apr 25th, 2014 @ 5:33am

    Oxford Press Luddism

    Iíve had several communications with Oxford Press in recent years about laggardly digital delivery of dictionaries. The companies it licensed dictionaries to for mobile devices have produced some horrible apps, and Oxfordís own web and disk products have been dismal and expensive. They don't get it. Meanwhile free and/or better offerings blew by the old school press. It is Encyclopedia Britannica v Wikipedia redux.

    Academic presses are plodding, atavistic institutions ill-suited for the digital world. I have little hope that Oxford dictionaries will succeed in the free market. They will have more committee meetings producing more outlines for consideration of prospective products, and they will fail.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. icon
    Mike Masnick (profile), Apr 25th, 2014 @ 6:42am

    professor and the madman

    By the way, if anyone is curious about how the original OED took 70 years, and the fact that much of it was written by a murderer locked up in a mental institution, I highly recommend The Professor and the Madman. The book goes on a little long (it should have just been a magazine article), but the underlying story is great.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. icon
    AMusingFool (profile), Apr 25th, 2014 @ 7:33am

    shelf space?

    I have the compact OED; I'd love to have the full version, but it's just too big.

    I wonder if they use Google Trends to research new words. That's gotta be the fastest way to check things out.

    And yeah, The Professor and the Madman is great.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. icon
    NoahVail (profile), Apr 25th, 2014 @ 7:35am

    Language is strongest when existing words retain their meanings for long periods of time. The more often words change meaning, the more likely we are to misunderstand each other.

    Debates and lectures lose their power to move people, when there's no common agreement on what's being said.

    OED became authoritative because of it's slowness to update definitions.
    But in the last generation, OED has been updating definitions more frequently and it is no longer the stronghold of English.

    The result is definitions become increasingly slippery and the power of communication shifts from teaching to manipulation.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. icon
    John Fenderson (profile), Apr 25th, 2014 @ 8:21am

    Re: Re: Not seeing....

    I disagree. The internet is wonderful, but it's incredibly useful to have reference data available offline nonetheless. The internet is not always available.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 25th, 2014 @ 9:00am

    Re: Re: Not seeing....

    "At that point, every non-internet option becomes pretty much a pointless sink for time and resources..."

    Why would it be a sink for time and resources? You just take the basic text and convert it to whatever format you need.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. icon
    ahow628 (profile), Apr 25th, 2014 @ 9:09am

    wikipedia-ize it?

    I don't want to make it another wikipedia (because it definitely has its issues), but it seems like the OED could have the menial work done by crowd-sourcing.

    If you wanted to have a bit more control, develop a github-like control environment where people can make commits and then the experts review. Others could vote on the commits so the experts could review the important/popular first.

    Building something like Ubuntu would probably take as long as the OED if they didn't use tools like launchpad and github.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. icon
    John Fenderson (profile), Apr 25th, 2014 @ 10:25am


    Like all dictionaries, OED is descriptive, not prescriptive. The speed of OED updates don't have a huge impact on the evolution of language. How quickly it updates depends on what it wants to be. If it wants to be authoritative in the sense of a complete reference to the meanings of English words, then it should update very frequently. If it wants to be authoritative in the sense of a reference to "core" meanings -- words that have been widely adopted and whose meanings are stable -- then it should update less frequently.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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