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Thanks, Internet: Printed Oxford English Dictionary Is Dying

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As a child, your writer got his geek on by traipsing down to the local library, where a massive microprint edition of the Compact Oxford English Dictionary was on display. The antique tome required a magnifying glass to read, and exuded some kind of occult authority with its Bible-like, tissue paper pages. But that experience will not be shared by the younger generation, as the Internet is quickly putting print dictionaries out of business.

Nigel Portwood, the chief executive of Oxford University Press, recently told the Sunday Times that the print dictionary market "is falling away by tens of percent a year." He doesn't think that, by the time the dictionary's editors finish the new version (a project that could take years), there will even be a demand for a print edition, which could sound the death-knell for the arbiters of English language.

But the printed edition has always been a prize for lexophiles, as the current one, revised in 1989, is a 20-volume set with a price tag of $995. It's no wonder, then, that the edition has only sold about 30,000 sets since its publication. To put that into perspective, the online version of the dictionary, which is admittedly easier to use than a magnifying glass, sees about 2 million hits a month from paid subscribers.

Earlier this month, we wrote about the OUP's one-off site Save the Words -- an online graveyard of obscure verbiage -- which some of our readers have dismissed as a traditionalist gimmick. But, if the print version goes the way of the woolly mammoth and the mimeograph, your prayers will have been answered. Although maintaining the online version somewhat democratizes access to the OED, a yearly subscription to the site still costs $295. (Luckily, most colleges give their students access to the online OED as part of their enrollment.) The OUP said in a statement that "a print version will certainly be considered if there is sufficient demand at the time of publication." So, then, there's only one solution. Everyone go buy $1,000 worth of dictionary, and save the printed OED!

Tags: deathofprint, language, linguistics, nigel portwood, NigelPortwood, oed, oxford english dictionary, oxford university press, OxfordEnglishDictionary, OxfordUniversityPress, top, words