Born to be Digital?

By Dave Mandl, 10 September 2000
Image: James Murray and librarians. Coutesy Oxford University Press

The OED comes to the Web, by Dave Mandl

A kind of Rheims Cathedral of lexicography, the original Oxford English Dictionary (1928) took nearly fifty years to complete, contained more than 400,000 definitions and filled ten volumes, the last of which was published thirteen years after the founding editor’s death. The second edition wasn’t published for another six decades. Nevertheless, it was a century well spent: not only does the OED dwarf every other dictionary the world has seen, but it’s also probably the greatest work of scholarship ever published – a minutely detailed record of the English language going back to the first century A.D., pieced together by thousands of researchers.

While a good case can certainly be made against the wanton digitisation of everything (see, for example, Nicholson Baker’s excellent essay on the blind destruction of library card-catalogues, or the recent hubbub over the offloading of academic bibliographies to the Net), if there was ever a book born to be digital, the OED is it. The very idea of a web-based edition of the sacred reference may horrify purists, but the recently released OED Online is far more useful than the original as a practical tool. It can’t be flipped through in bed (damn), but it does allow you to do things that you simply can’t with the analogue edition, like performing several kinds of global searches, sorting definitions by date and simplifying the display by hiding the OED’s staggering 2.4 million documentary quotations – which, it must be said, can create unnecessary clutter when all you’re looking for is a simple definition. Best of all, it can be updated by the editors in almost real time.

One problem: the price. A subscription will cost you £350 a year. However, since the 21,730-page paper edition sells for a couple of grand and takes up yards of shelf space, the web-based version may actually be more affordable.

David Mandl <dmandl AT>