One of the most iconic tools of the English language is the historic and famed Oxford English Dictionary. First established in 1858 with the goal of not just defining words but tracing their origins and first known published use, the OED has a tireless history of being the definitive source for information on words in the English language.
But as a rather in-depth piece by Tom Rachman for the New York Times points out, the process of being the OED is not a short one. It took twenty-five years for the original volume–A through Ant–to make it to publication. The full first edition was planned in the mid-1800s and wasn’t published until 1928. The second edition followed in 1989, and the third edition–first proposed in 1995–isn’t expected to be released until 2037.
With a new editor-in-chief at the helm, the OED may be undergoing more than just a pretty facelift to its exhaustive list of words and corresponding information. Having worked at the OED for twenty-five years, Michael Proffitt is not quick to throw out the old ways of doing business as the go-to source for English language information, but is looking ahead to more practical applications of the book.
One of the first steps for Proffitt is to to help authors and publishers see the benefits of having links to the OED in digital editions of texts. In addition, he’d like to see the OED information licensed for commercial business use, a measure that would help sustain the brand.
More importantly, Proffitt cannot be sure that the third edition will ever see its way to print publication. The first edition, with its nearly 620,000 words and corresponding information entries, was published in twenty volumes; the complete second edition costs $995, and its digital counterpart comes with a $295 price tag for a one-year online subscription. And while the expense of the OED is not strictly the paper and printing, but rather the teams of people who sit hunched over keyboards every day in order to ensure that the information is accurate and comprehensive, the fact of the matter is Googling the information is free, a fact that has already toppled other mainstays of printed volume reference works like Encyclopedia Britannica.
Whatever the OED of the future looks like, whether it’s embedded in every day reading material or becomes a search engine of its own, the dedication to preserving and recording the English language will keep the information relevant, even if the format goes by the wayside.