According to the NYT Magazine (via Classical Bookworm), the next edition of the OED, planned for completion after 2018, will likely only be published electronically and not in print form. It makes sense in a way, because reference books are ideally suited for electronic publication, largely because of the convenience of hyperlinks. The print OED is 20 volumes, so to track down cross-references is a daunting task. And I’m sure on-line publication is more sound financially for the publisher.
But there is great romance in that 20-volume presentation. Consulting the OED is meant to be a slow process: You’re supposed to pull out a hefty volume and carry to a desk; there is something unseemly about rushing through this book.
The OED is not a dictionary in the sense we commonly understand the term — you would be ill advised to consult it for contemporary spelling or usage. Yes, it an etymological and historical dictionary without equal, but it’s equally a work of literature. It encapsulates the British literary canon in its quotations demonstrating the historical evolution of terms. And it is so much more satisfying to peruse this massive literary sampler in the full print form (certainly not the appalling microscopic single-volume edition — which I own, thanks to the expense of the full set) than on a computer screen.
But before we lament this lost pleasure we should wait and see what changes the next decade brings in book publishing. Who knows where we will be in 2018? Whatever happens, it’s comforting to know that the OED, in some form, will be there.
More OED: I am currently reading Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages by Ammon Shea. I will post some thoughts on this soon.