If your school was anything like mine, it had a dusty old tome sitting someplace in the back almost like a sacred alter to the English language. Particularly if you were under the age of 16, you and your friends sneaked over to that dusty old tome and giggled as you looked up all the dirty words in the English language. Not only did you find them, you found their spellings, pronunciations, and histories, along with every conceivable meaning. Yes, even the F bomb was represented.
That tome was the abridged (as if anything that thick can be called “abridged”) edition of The Oxford English Dictionary, the definitive dictionary of the English language. First started in the 1850’s, the first volume of it did not come out until 1884, and the entire first edition was not completed until 1928, 70 years after it was started. The current full version is 20 volumes and will set you back around $1700. Or for less than $300, you can subscribe to the online version.
Oxford University announced that, when the next edition is complete sometime during or after 2020, it will no longer offer the print edition.
Does that mean novels and nonfiction books will follow? Or, given that it takes decades to complete an edition of The Oxford English Dictionary, precede it?
I believe yes and no. For reference material in the Age of Google, online reference only makes sense. For instance, almost 20 years ago, I started trotting about Cincinnati in an attempt to sell Encyclopedia Britannica. The main objection I could not overcome was “But encyclopedia’s are going to CD ROM.” For 1991, that was groundbreaking and still-futuristic stuff. I was told by the sales manager to refute that, saying the technology was still years in the future. Meanwhile, even I, then one of the most computer-illiterate people around, knew there was this thing called “the Internet” that you could dial up and use to rummage through the libraries of universities all over America, probably the world. Anyone remember Gopher, WAIS, and Archie? Three years later, I owned a computer and had played with both Macs and Windows 3.1 machines. My computer came with Grolier’s Encyclopedia on CD ROM.
These days, I just hit Wikipedia if I need some quick and dirty facts. “But Jim, Wikipedia isn’t reliable.” Um, well, yes it is. It’s policed quite nicely, and one needs only a good bullshit detector to see where someone’s grinding an axe. Plus, young padawan, did not your teachers tell you in high school not to cite encyclopedias anyway?
The point is, I go to Wiki and and have articles, a dictionary, and, should I be feeling pretentious and wordy, a thesaurus at my fingertips.
But people are paying the $295 annual fee to use The Oxford English Dictionary, just as they still pay for Lexis-Nexis searches when they want to bing something on Google and go “Yahoo!” Because in terms of reference material, you truly are buying the content, and like newspapers (which really need to embrace e-readers more), that content has to be constantly updated.
And no one’s going to spend $1695 a year to update a 20-volume dictionary when the latest definition of the word “booger” can be uploaded within seconds of Oxford University’s linguists approving it.
I and other writers and readers will continue to debate whether printed books will disappear until printed books disappear. As for reference work, especially important tomes like The Oxford English Dictionary, only one rule applies:
It’s the content, stupid.