back to article OED goes the way of all flesh paper

The Oxford University Press is apparently planning to can the full-fat Oxford English Dictionary - the 20-volume, 22,000-page linguistic epic which weighs in at 150lb. Yes indeed, it's black armbands all round down at the Daily Mail, which reckons that the next edition - OED3 - will only be available online. Currently, …


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  1. Geoff Campbell
    Thumb Up

    Why on earth is that a sad day?

    The Internet is a much, much better delivery mechanism for a comprehensive dictionary. By all means keep a copy of the Concise edition on your bookshelf for quick reference, but for the full-on, heavyweight version, an on-line system makes so much more sense I can't even begin to understand why someone might not see it.

    Still, I've just given away my Britannica, so I'm probably biased....


    1. Graham Marsden

      Books are a technology which does not become obsolete!

      Yes, you can get more onto a CD/ DVD/ whatever, yes they are easier to transport etc, but a 20 year old copy of the printed OED will still be usable whilst a 20 year old copy in an electronic format (remember the 1980's Domesday Book which was produced on 12" Laser disks and read by a BBC Master computer?) will have been surpassed by later technologies.

      Convenience is all very well, but permanence should not be ignored.

      1. Anonymous Coward

        Paper is no more "permanent" than digital

        You simply make a copy of your digital copy to any new digital medium. Something you cannot do with a paper edition.

        Besides, paper degrades, tears, burns, dissolves, fades etc. It is not now, and never has been "permanent"

        1. JaitcH

          The oldest paper document dates from 100 B.C. and ...

          is the Nash Papyrus, oldest known biblical fragment, containing the Hebrew text of the ten commandments. It was 'acquired' in Egypt 1902 by W.L.Nash and now in Cambridge University Library.

          CD's and DVD's require refresh copies to be made between every 3 and 10 years.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward


            And you read that much, do you? Or do you perhaps read copies (eg, photographs) of it?

            Think you've missed the point here really ... copying something digital to another digital medium is trivial

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    In all seriousness, something like the OED needs to be printed in some quantity for the use of future historians and researchers who may not have access to the Wayback Machine. 500 years is not a particularly long time in historical research but the Internet is very much dependant on political will and in that context 500 years is beyond any hope of continuity.

    1. Aaron Em


      In five hundred years, the Wayback Machine won't even be a memory.

    2. copsewood

      Political will and chaords ?

      The Internet isn't subject to political will any more than the continuation of a significant and internationally-used language (e.g. English) is. That's because the Internet is less a physical thing and more a language for interconnecting physical things. Close down any major part of the Net, even all of it, and it will naturally reconnect itself, as people with access to components of what it used to be find these to be more useful connected than otherwise.


      You could argue that the mainstream naming and addressing of objects on the Internet are subject to political will. Without this, naming and addressing would be fragmented, as was the case with the non-Internet networks (e.g. UK Janet, UUCP, Bitnet etc. which had application gateways into the Internet until the early nineties.

  3. Christoph

    Rather less than 150lb by then.

    More than a decade before the next edition? By that time the problem will be finding it again if you drop it, without using a magnifying glass.

  4. tfb Silver badge

    "It's a snip"

    The online version is cheap compared to the printed one if you intend to use it for less than 3 years. If you think you might perhaps keep the print one for longer than that, then it's cheaper. Obviously I understand that most of us replace our dictionaries every 6 months or so, but perhaps there remain a few people who might find the printed one worth while.

    Seriously: if ever the was an application for something like the Kindle, this is it.

  5. Paul Slater

    Library access

    Join your local library and you get free online access via your library membership. I've been using it this way for about 4 years. One of the unseen benefits of public libraries, that the gummunt is trying to close down.

  6. dogged

    Black armbands?

    Normally, the Mail are more into black shirts.

  7. illiad


    you gotta laff.... WHO buys the whole damed lot, 12 or 13 volumes, PLUS the updates, etc... never mind the price, what about the shelf space????

    Most 'normal' people just get a much smaller cheaper single book version...

  8. Francis Boyle Silver badge

    A sad day?

    Probably not. The OED has some claim to be the world's first collaborative IT project. As such going on line is rather a coming of age. Pity though that it's a little bit more expensive than Linux .

  9. EddieD


    I'm a crossword addict, and I find it's much easier to use a paper dictionary than spark up my computer (no, I don't leave it on 24/7) and head to Also, something I found when I was ickle - when you look up one word in a dictionary, a whole host of other words, meanings, and phrases are offered up alongside the one you want, you can learn 10 things looking up one word - far more useful than the ads I get on the Internet...

    On the other hand, has a thesaurus function, which is undeniably useful, and stops me getting another book from the shelf...

    I'd like both really - I'm looking up at the bookshelves above my workstation, and alongside my various SAMS guides and O'Reilly Nutshells there's a copy of Chambers Dictionary (also consigned to history) and a concise OED - but when I'm using word processor, I don't need them and they gather dust.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "when I'm using word processor, I don't need them"

      Most people who use word processors are in dire need of a dictionary.

    2. Anonymous Coward

      Uh ...

      Isn't using a dictionary while doing crosswords cheating?

      1. Graham Marsden


        Exactly *how* is using a dictionary (or a thesaurus) "cheating" when doing a crossword?

        Using a word finder would be, using a crossword solver would be, but not using a dictionary or thesaurus to check a definition or find the right "shade" of meaning to crack a compiler's clue.

        1. Anonymous Coward


          You can either deduce the answer to a crossword or you can't. If you have to look it up in a dictionary, or a thesaurus, then you might as well just look up the answer. What's the point of challenging yourself by looking up the answer in a book?

          But if you're happy, good luck to you ;)

          1. Graham Marsden
            Thumb Down


            Tell me, exactly how many crosswords do you do? (NB I'm talking cryptic crosswords, not the quick one in The Sun...)

            Using a dictionary or thesaurus is not "looking up the answer in a book", it is a way of finding the precise definition or shade of meaning that the compiler has used which is often deliberately obscure or oblique.

            For instance if a compiler uses the word "neat" in a clue eg "Neat offspring (4)" it may be in the sense of "clean, tidy, orderly", but it could also be the archaic term for "a domestic bovine animal" [Collins]

            Now if you've never heard the second definition before, you're going to be stuck until you pick up a good dictionary and go "Aha! That was what it means, so the offspring of a neat is a calf!"

            Implying that this is somehow "cheating" simply shows a lack of understanding on your part.

    3. Geoff Campbell

      So, Mr. Crossword Addict.... you actually own a copy of the *complete* Oxford English Dictionary, or are you just blowin' smoke? Because that is the book (or, rather, extremely large set of books) that this article is about.

      Any crossword that requires a complete OED to finish strikes me as little fun.


  10. Mage Silver badge


    What Hari Seldon really doing?

    Won't they release it on DVD also?

  11. JaitcH

    Dictionaries: A history of langages

    Whilst new technology might be needed to handle the volume of data, dictionaries are special. They are a historical record.

    Another benefit of paper is their survivability. How many dictators, including Hitler and MAO Tse-Tung, started off their revolutions by destroying libraries yet some records survived.

    Electronic versions leave us more susceptible to such characters - a simple flip of a switch and all is gone.

    1. PsychicMonkey
      Thumb Down

      "a flip of a switch and it's all gone"

      much like th emany torren tsites they have turned off. oh wait....

  12. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge

    still needs to be printed


    In 1985(I think) the BBC stuffed a whole lot of knowledge of one sort or another onto a phillips? laser disc.

    How many people now have the equipment now capable of reading said disc 25 years later?

    I also have a copy of the hitch hikers guide to the galaxy book, bought in 1985..... guess which special technology I need to read that?(apart from reading glasses)

    How long until CD-Roms are unreadable by the latest technology... or DVDs or Blu-rays

    Yes they are great if you want to reference the information really fast, or not have to carry 250lbs of books around, but unless someone makes the effort to preserve the equipment needed to read said data, then it will become lost forever.

    1. Ken Hagan Gold badge

      Re: still needs to be printed

      If we're going to have a discussion about how to preserve the OED for future generations, can we at least have the *right* discussion? The medium doesn't matter. The format matters.

      The OED in your library is a mix of paper and text. The original paper may or may not be readable in 10, 100 or 1000 years time but it will always be fairly easy for an archivist to copy the visual appearance of the text to a new piece of paper and thereby preserve the meaning of the book. Unless you are particularly interested in the book *as a physical object* rather than as a container of cultural goodies, you shouldn't be too troubled by this.

      Now this presumes that someone cares enough about the contents of the book to make the copy, but...

      Firstly, that's no different from books. All of our literary legacy from the Classical world has come down through hand-written copies. (Typically copies of copies of...) Furthermore, those copies survived in a wider society that cared little for them. Very, very few people were both literate and interested in the products of cultures other than their own. By contrast, western society now is positively potty about the need to preserve records. (Most of our *detailed* knowledge of the Holocaust comes down to us through written records kept by the perpetrators. Ironically, David Irving's worst enemies were the Nazis.) In fact, we've started digitising historical paper records at an enormous rate. Really boring stuff too, like census returns, as well as the priceless stuff like the few surviving 1000-year old books.

      Secondly, those copies were terrifically expensive until the printing press turned up. Making an electronic copy nowadays is so cheap that it is usually cheaper to "preserve everything" than to expend effort deciding what to throw away. In fact, for non-encrypted data, the ease with which copies are made is a security problem.

      So there is next to no chance that the OED3 will not be available to any 25th century historian who wants to look something up.

      But ... unless it was created in a fairly widely understood format (HTML, PDF, ...) they may not be able to read it. Worse still, there will be a "commercial" temptation for OUP to wrap the 3rd edition in a load of DRM, ensuring that *by design* it isn't even readable to scholars on the day it is published, let alone 5 centuries hence.

      1. Sooty

        this is a hard one for me

        As a self confessed bibliophile, I love printed books...

        Especially the ones that are produced with some modicum of quality. I love the whole experience of it, and own a significant number of high end, special edition, leatherbound books.

        Physical copies of things are much, much more practical in most scenarios... generally easier to read, browse, etc... eInk has made some headway but not a lot. The general physicality of a book, is a large part of the appeal, presentation, smell, texture, being able to physically turn pages even...

        For longevity, a decently produced paper book will last for a very, very long time. From experience, my dad has a great collection of some classic sci-fi novels impossible* to get nowadays, cheap tat paperbacks will last 30-50 years, even assuming stuck on a generic shelf and read every few years! Better editions will last much, much longer "unaided". Paper, naturally, however, doesn't last forever, better quality production, means better longevity, but it's limited.

        However, that said, my experience of finding classic, at least out of print, books, has been monumentally more successful digitally than physically. which makes my availability arguments pretty pointless. I'd love to raise the arguments about format, drm, etc. But... if it's stored in plain text, ASCII(Unicode), formatting aside, I'd expect it to be available, whatever medium, for centuries to come!

        Generally, I'm arguing for both! An electronic version should definitely be available, but equally validly, the high quality, physically bound versions should also, always be available, for those who want to explore "the old fashioned way" and feel it along with smelling, hearing and... finally, seeing it!

        *I say impossible, if you're really dedicated you can find them... there aren't many books i'd pay £100+ for, but there are one or two!

        1. Shades

          Leatherbound books you say...

          ...Does your apartment smell of rich mahogany too?

  13. Weeble

    Never mind paper...

    For the sake of posterity, the exisiting OED2 and any future OED3 need to be available hand-scribed onto the finest vellum in stout leather bindings.

    Available evidence show that hese will still be readable in 1000 years, whilst any electronic means will be lucky to last 1000 weeks.

  14. Anonymous Coward

    Why not publish as an eBook?

    As the title says...

    1. Aaron Em

      Because it'd be huge and unworkable

      The full OED is over a dozen volumes. Each volume is easily a megabyte or two; having once seen them, weighed them in my hands, and had a chance to see just how much tiny print they fit into each volume, I'd be willing to bet each volume is more like ten megabytes at the very least just for the text, exclusive of the fairly complex markup that'd be necessary to correctly represent the content, and the additional font that'd be required to correctly represent the pronunciation guides. I guarantee you there's not one ebook reader in ten which is capable of correctly representing a page of OED print, much less making it searchable in a way that works -- what would take you or me maybe ten minutes of page-riffling is going to take that dinky little ARM in your Kindle from now until the end of the universe, more or less.

      Are these good reasons *not* to work out a way of distributing the full OED electronically? No -- but they *are* good reasons why an ebook version isn't going to replace the paper version.

      1. as2003

        Most ebook readers...

        Most* ebook readers are capable of displaying PDFs, and PDFs are capable of displaying all sorts of vector and non-vector information. Ergo, ebook readers would have no trouble displaying an electronic version of the OED.

        You make a good point about searching though.

        (* based on no research whatsoever)

      2. James Hughes 1


        Surely the most basic of ARM chips would be able to search the whole dictionary much faster than a human could. How long would it take you to read and note down every occurrence of the word contrafibulations?

        Also, searching for a particular definition would also be way faster using a chip than fingers and eyes. The arm could have searched the index in the time it took you to pick up the book.

        The whole of the OED would fit on a modern flash drive with mucho mucho space to spare. Not a lot of data in modern terms.

  15. ravenviz
    Thumb Up


    Sounds like an investment opportunity: Antiques Roadshow 2251 anyone?

  16. TeeCee Gold badge

    OED online only?

    One problem with this is obvious. How is one supposed to fold down the page corners and underline all the naughty words then?

    This is going to make the humour of "Ink and Incapability" impenetrable to future generations....

    1. Bob H
      Thumb Up

      Urban Dictionary

      That is why they gave us the uncylopedia, sickipedia and especially the urbandictionary.


      1. Sarah Bee (Written by Reg staff)

        Re: Urban Dictionary

        'Commentard' is on Urban Dictionary, I was pleased to find, and the Reg is cited. Doesn't say if we invented it or not though. I don't know if we did but we may have a claim.

  17. Z80

    On the subject of dictionaries

    16th July 2009 Vulture Central plans Brit-Yank dictionary

  18. Aaron Em

    Flesh paper

    See, the strikethrough doesn't make it into the RSS feed, so it looked like a comparison between the OED and the Necronomicon, which struck me rather funny.

    That is all.

  19. phoenix

    Damn Merkins will invent more unecessary words

    without access to this all incompassing tomb. Read contining for "on-going", uninstall for "distinstall" (wonderful MS for that one) never mind the chronic abuse of grammer such as sat when it should be sitting for example.

    You will all say it is a living language and all that. But we do not have to invent words where there are perfect valid ones in existence?

    rant over

    1. Sarah Bee (Written by Reg staff)

      Re: Damn Merkins will invent more unecessary words

      It's not Americans so much as businesspeople.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Damn Merkins will invent more unecessary words

      What's "grammer"?

    3. Steven Knox

      Spelling and Grammar

      Read "encompassing" for "incompassing", "tome" for "tomb", "continuing" for "contining", "disinstall" for "distinstall", "grammar" for "grammer", and "perfectly" for "perfect".

      In future, you may want to consider the parable of the mote and beam before posting. Have a Nice Day.

    4. Spot the Cat

      Re - Damn Merkins will invent more unecessary words

      What's "incompassing"?

  20. skellious

    But the really important point is...

    if we get rid of the OED, what will Countdown give away as a prize?

    On a more general note; as a bibilophile, books are special and precious things which cannot be replaced by a DVD or any other current medium. Because I love reading so much, I recently looked in to e-readers so that I might not have to carry half a library around with me in a bag and still have a selection of reading mateiral for the train, reference material for work and so on. However, not one of the e-readers I saw met my needs. page turns on e-ink are frustraitingly slow and so distracting while LCD e-readers lack the battery power. I have books several-hundred years old, if we even made a solar-powered e-reader library, it would be unlikely to survive for many years before the components ran out. a book with a missing page can still be mostly read, but an e-reader with even a single missing component would cease to function. And if you read a good book, you can't lend it to a friend unless it's non-DRM and they also have an e-reader. (i know a service is developing a lending system but it's not the same). I will say one thing for e-readers though, they stop people writing in books or folding the corners, something I often worry about with the books I lend to people.

    The Hitchhiker's Guide's "fast-wind index" may be useful [early idea of an e-book?] but it doesn't compare to the joy of flicking through a dictionary, discovering new words and confirming old ones. So, I hope the OED does publish the third edition on paper, even if it's at a higher cost.

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    title? [I'll think of one later]

    I have the 2 vol Shorter OED, I bought it more thirty years ago and its every bit as readable now as then. I also have two editions of the same on CD rom. The older edition is useable with Linux using Wine, the more recent edition is not.

    A printed book will last a lifetime at the very least, electronic editions may seem cheaper but they do not last.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Me too

      But it is the single volume version (I often wish I had got the 2-vol as I lift it!).

      16th-Birthday present from my parents, and now forty-one years old.

      It's the best thing I have for settling arguments. Few skulls can stand the weight!

  22. Graham Bartlett

    @Jaitch and Boris

    "Another benefit of paper is their survivability"

    Look up "Library of Alexandria" and then repeat this idiotic statement with a straight face. (Hint: look at the icon.)

    One Repository To Rule Them All has never been a good storage system. Multiple repositories is the only safe way to go - you can then keep your repositories up-to-date and error-free. And electronic repositories are the only way of making that process automated, fast and low-error.

    Contrary to people moaning "BBC Master - laserdisk - obsolete media", there *are* plenty of existing BBC, C64 and other games around today, playable through emulators such as MAME. They've been format-shifted to another storage medium, that's all. You may also notice that the original Gutenberg press plates for Shakespeare's plays no longer exist, but the plays are still being printed...

    It also rather depends on how long you want to wait between updates. With an electronic version you can pick up all the latest updates as they're added - no need to wait 28 years for a version of the OED containing the word "email", or new definitions for the words "mobile" and "text".

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Up

      don't be a dick

      The library at alexandria was a single location. when it went, everything there went. ti's the same problem with having all your eggs in one basket. not a good idea then. not a good idea now.

      Print VS. anything else. GIVE ME BOTH. A nicely bound acid-free archival version and the best on searchable DVD today.. Please, please, please print it and make sure multiple copies go to the far corners of the globe.

      1. Anonymous Coward


        Strange how you say "don't be a dick" then repeat his exact point about not storing everything in the same location ...

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    All this...

    All this discussion and argument over what is clearly a silly season story invented by the mail.

  24. Ashley Stevens

    21 years?

    It should be continuously updated online. How many new words have there been in the last 21 years they've been working on this? How do they expect to ever finish? It's a pointless exercise that can never finish, only be continuously updated online.

    It's not a sad day, perhaps it's the beginning of the realization that this is an on-going project, not something that will ever get 'finished'.

  25. M Gale

    Only schools, libraries and serious bookworms buy the full OED anyway.

    And I imagine they'll continue to do so, what with being schools, libraries and serious bookworms. I can't see the print edition disappearing any time soon.

  26. Thomas Allen
    Paris Hilton

    Prices lower in the west and south

    The Compact 2 Volume edition with case is less that $50 on ebay (used), several are $75, several more for $150, all on Buy It Now. At that price, I wouldn't use it for toilet paper, but it is pretty cheap. The shipping is what'll getcha!

    Paris is looking up 'fugitive'...

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