Oxford dictionaries: Demise of the printed editions?

By Emma Harrison
BBC News

  • Published
First edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 1928Image source, OUP
Image caption,
The first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1928

TV show Countdown has announced that its "Dictionary Corner" will use the online version of the Oxford Dictionary of English instead of the printed version. Does this spell the beginning of the end of the printed dictionary in the digital age?

The familiar sight of words expert Susie Dent with a dictionary is as much a part of Countdown as its iconic clock.

But that is all about to change on screen as the printed Oxford Dictionary of English is ditched in favour of a laptop and Oxford Dictionaries Online.

For Dent, there was an element of sadness in moving on from the show's famous "pencam" - a small camera that highlights words in the dictionary in "Dictionary Corner".

"I remember the last pencam shot I took and feeling quite emotional about it," said the lexicographer.

"But it is amazing how quickly I have got used to looking at the laptop.

"I miss the pencam, but I don't miss the dictionary."

Image source, Channel 4
Image caption,
Susie Dent has stressed that the principles of Dictionary Corner will remain exactly the same

The online version of the Oxford Dictionary of English is updated every three months, much more frequently than the printed version, which was last published in 2010.

Dent says that this will make it fairer for contestants who come up with words that have only recently been added, such as "selfie".

And she stresses that the principles of Dictionary Corner will remain exactly the same.

"It sounds like a momentous decision and to viewers of the show it would be because they are used to me rooting through the printed dictionary," she said.

"We thought it would be unfair if a contestant came up with a word that hadn't come into the printed dictionary.

Image source, OUP
Image caption,
The OED illustrates word definitions by quoting from more than 100,000 modern and historical texts

"It is to give contestants really the best chance at having their word allowed.

"It reflects that English is evolving probably faster than it ever has before."

But does she think the printed dictionary will eventually disappear from use?

"Whether or not it will disappear, it is a difficult call, I hope not personally," she said.

"I think it is possibly going to end up being much more popular online. But the key thing is that it has to be mediated. I think having the name of a good dictionary maker is going to be just as important."

Oxford University Press (OUP) publishes both the Oxford Dictionary of English, which documents the current usage of English words and is used by Countdown, and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), a historical dictionary and one of the largest in the world.

The OED is the preferred dictionary for a number of news outlets, including the BBC.

It illustrates word definitions by quoting from more than 100,000 modern and historical texts, from Shakespeare's plays to scripts from TV shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The first section, A to Ant, was published in 1884 and work on the first OED continued right through World War One.

In fact, it has been recorded that staff members took their work with them including soldier George Watson, who corrected proofs by candlelight in the trenches and even in a captured German dugout.

Increasing size

It was proposed that the first edition of the OED would be four volumes, with 6,400 pages.

But after 70 years in production - a huge 60 years longer than expected - the actual size of the OED was 10 volumes and 15,490 pages in 1928.

The second edition was published by Oxford University Press 61 years later in 1989 and was 20 volumes and 21,730 pages.

By this time the volumes weighed 137.72lb (62.6kg) in total.

An online version was launched in 2000.

Image caption,
The OED team collects evidence of words being used from documents including newspapers and novels

Now the third edition of the ever increasing dictionary is in production, with an expected publication date some time in the 2030s.

It already features 600,000 words, three million quotations, and covers more than 1,000 years of English.

"We are not doing anything that would make printing it impossible, " said Peter Gilliver, Oxford English Dictionary associate editor.

"If there was a market for it, why would Oxford University Press say 'no we won't print it'? There may still be people who want a printed version."

Fiona McPherson, senior editor of new words, added: "It would be big. An estimate at one point was if we carried on adding and revising words it would double in size."

Image source, OUP

New words

Oxford University Press says the OED has never been profitable commercially, but £34m of funding has been committed for its revision and new words programmes.

The publisher has 70 in-house staff working on the third edition of the OED, who are both revising entries and adding new words.

For a word to be added, the team has to collect evidence of the word being used in language from documents including newspapers, novels and journals.

"You want to show a good spread of types of places you would expect to find this type of word. A word has to prove itself," said Ms McPherson.

One word that took the team by surprise was OMG.

While it appeared to be a modern word, its earliest known use is, in fact, in a letter written in 1917.

Ms McPherson said: "You are constantly surprised, they (words) are older than you think."

It can take about five years for a word to be added - but once it is, it is never taken out.

"It is a historical dictionary. History doesn't get shorter. We might mark a word as obsolete but there is still a story that has to be told," said Mr Gilliver.

"Even new words have a history. That is what makes the job so rewarding."

Countdown viewers will see the change in Dictionary Corner from Monday, 30 June on Channel 4.

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