April 29, 2014

Third edition of the OED to be completed in 2034


Come the 2030s, the printed OED may be unfamiliar.

Come 2030, the OED may not look like this anymore.

According to the Telegraph, the third edition of the Oxford English Dictionary is not only over twenty years behind schedule, but also risks losing its place in print.

Michael Proffitt, who stepped into the chief editor position in November 2013,  says that the third edition is running late largely because “‘information overload’ from the internet is slowing his compilers.” The seventy philologists on Proffitt’s team have already been working on OED3 since 1994, but it may be another twenty before the third edition is ready for publication. (As of this year, the edition has defined 800,000 words and counting.)

When Proffitt began working for the OED in 1989, he says that the team managed to define “about 80” new words per month, largely because library—rather than internet—research was the only possibility. Today, he and his team goes for 50 to 60 words per month due to the huge amount of information available. As associate editor Peter Gilliver told the New York Times, “We can hear everything that’s going on in the world of English for the last 500 years, and it’s deafening.”

In an interview with Country Life magazine, Proffitt explained both the delay and the improbability of seeing a third edition in print:

A lot of the first principles of the OED stand firm, but how it manifests has to change, and how it reaches people has to change. . . . Although the internet has made access easier, it’s also created the dilemma of information overload.

In 1989, we looked for five years’ recorded usage before a word entered the dictionary. Now, it’s 10 years because there is so much more material to sift through.

We look not only for frequency and longevity, but also breadth of use because, once a word enters the OED, it doesn’t come out. It’s a permanent record of language. I don’t think of it as a purely linguistic document, but as part of social history.

As much as the internet makes researching the OED tedious, it may actually help its future. Proffitt believes that “strong works of reference have a great future on the internet,” and hopes to link the OED to a historical thesaurus developed in Glasgow to provide historical and social contexts.

There is some small hope for subsequent OEDs in print; the Oxford University Press says that it will indeed print the third edition if there is “sufficient demand.” Estimated to be forty volumes by publication, the next OED would be twice the size of the 21,730-page second edition.


Emma Aylor is a former Melville House intern.