Internet Age Casualties: Printed Dictionary Next on the List?

As more go online, Oxford English Dictionary may go digital-only.

ByABC News
August 30, 2010, 5:20 PM

Aug. 31, 2010— -- Is the printed dictionary on its way to being the latest casualty of the Internet age?

Rightly or wrongly, the Internet is already faulted with killing off privacy, grammar and the attention span. This week, linguaphiles learned that the esteemed Oxford English Dictionary might be next on digital technology's hit list.

Nigel Portwood, the chief executive of the Oxford University press, told the U.K.'s The Sunday Times that he didn't think the newest edition will be printed when it comes out in 2020.

"The print dictionary market is just disappearing. It is falling away by tens of percent a year," he said.

Later, the publishing company clarified his position and said that a decision on the printed edition hasn't yet been made. There is still demand for the print version, but interest in the online reference is growing, it said.

"People certainly are migrating to the Internet for what normally would have been a print reference book," said Christian Purdy, director of publicity for the Oxford University Press USA.

According to the Associated Press, the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary (O.E.D.) receives 2 million hits a month from subscribers who pay $295 a year. The current printed edition, which exists in 20 volumes and was published in 1989, has sold about 30,000 sets in total, it reported.

As lexicographers add new words every few months, Purdy said the dictionary stands to grow even bigger.

"How many volumes will it be in 10 years, when we hopefully meet our deadline to update the entire O.E.D.? Who knows and at what cost? And will there be a market for the print edition in ten years?" he asked. "At present, we're not saying anything definite. … It's something we continually revisit to see how cost-effective it might be."

But if the Internet age succeeds in knocking off the printed dictionary, some might say it wouldn't be the first linguistic loss triggered by the rise of information technology.

When cellphone-toting teens first learned to text, some educators wondered if they would forget how to spell. As the language of e-mail and short messages filtered in to the classroom and work place, some grammarians wondered if they were doomed to a future stripped of syntax.