The Last Word

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The Last Word

Sarah L. Courteau

Why the world of letters won't end if the Oxford English Dictionary is never printed again.

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The Oxford English Dictionary has been making headlines in the last few days, and the whole brouhaha reminds me of that old English children’s story “The Three Sillies,” about the hazards of borrowing trouble. This weekend Britain’s Sunday Times published a story in which the CEO of Oxford University Press, when asked whether the third edition, which is still at least 10 years from completion, would be published in print as well as digital form, made the mistake of saying the obvious: “I doubt it.” He remarked that the print dictionary market is “falling away by tens of percent a year.” Never mind that in the same article, a publicity spokesperson said that if the demand existed at the time of publication, physical copies of the OED would be printed. (The OED’s second edition, which came out in 1989, consists of 20 hefty volumes and retails on Amazon.com for $1,290.) The Chicken Littles among dictionary pundits were already off and running

Two years ago, Charlotte Brewer, author of a book about the history of the OED, wrote an essay for us, “Only Words,” in which she contemplated the future of the dictionary after a similar round of speculation. Her conclusions should offer some comfort to those who think that the digitization of the OED represents one more cultural tombstone.
 
Photo credit: Camille Hoel via flickr