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Oxford English Dictionary could go online-only

Not enough demand for hardcover version

The publisher of the complete Oxford English Dictionary says the OED may be the next printed work to give up on paper and go completely digital.

The Oxford University Press said recently it may not have enough market demand to publish a hardcover version of the third edition of the multivolume OED, according to an Associated Press report. The Oxford University Press would instead focus on selling subscriptions to the OED's online version.

It should be pointed out, however, that no official publication date is set for the third edition of the OED. Scholars have been working on the text since 1989, and as of June 2010 only entries from 'A' to 'Rococoesque' have been completed.

That means the OED's editorial team completes approximately 0.83 letters of the alphabet every year. At that pace, who knows if we'll even be using websites when the third edition is completed.

The OED is widely considered to be the preeminent authority on the English language, and has been available in print since 1884. The second edition of the complete OED was published in 1989 as a 20-volume hardcover set. The OED contains more than 21,000 pages detailing word pronunciation, history, usage, and spellings.

While that may sound impressive, the entire text of the OED's second edition takes up just 540MB of digital storage space. That means you would need just three-quarters the storage capacity of a typical blank CD to store all of the current OED's 291, 500 entries.

Considering the tradeoff in excess weight, it's no wonder users are eschewing print versions for the OED's online offering. The web version of the OED (launched in 2000) receives 2 million hits a month, while the complete OED has sold just 30,000 copies total since its publication in 1989, according to the AP.

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