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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Oxford English Dictionary's Demise Symbolic Of Digital's Triumph

Jen Winston |
August 30, 2010 | 9:20 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

The retirement party for the massive print edition of the OED is approaching. (Creative Commons)
The retirement party for the massive print edition of the OED is approaching. (Creative Commons)
Ladies and gentlemen, we are all guilty of murder. We may not have realized the era we ended or the money we saved by doing so, but the fact remains that we have (probably) killed the print version of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first edition of the OED was published in 1928, and the second in 1989. That’s a 61-year difference, one that printed media was able to withstand. And here we are in 2010, in the age of Kindles and digital-only journalism, yet we are still shedding our tears over the potential loss of the OED’s third edition in printed form. (Due out in over a decade, the format is TBD, but all signs point to a solely digital version.)

Why do we cling to the idea of a print dictionary with such fervor when most of us don’t even own one? Does the nostalgic rush of guidewords and small fonts really fulfill the book’s purpose more wholly than instant definitions, word of the day lists, and, ahem, unique blog posts?

The tear-drenched faces concerned about the OED seem hypocritical. The same argument stands that we can use for anything converting to digital – increased access means increased use, and this signifies some sort of positive conclusion. E-readers are the birth of the novel, not the death. Right?

For the OED, a switch to digital has so many obvious pros there is no need to list them as to further mock the previous mediums and their accompanying sluggish methods. Get up and flip through a dictionary? I’d rather Google “synonyms” and find an entirely different word, thank you. We are moving forward, and no 135-lb. book will stand in our way.

The dictionary may be a pain to use, but our contempt for that is reflective of both laziness and desire for immediacy – two traits that should be opposites, but are simultaneously becoming more accurate descriptions of our society. We take most information for granted because we know that we can access it later, and the dictionary, too, has been victim to this convenience paradox. However, this does not mean it should give in.

Understandably, print editions of dictionaries cost bundles to produce, with their fancy golden pages and leather-bound spines, but these expenses contribute to why the OED is so much more than just a resource. A dictionary is an experience, one that we hold close to our learning. It is the way we create memories of words—I’ll never forget when that boy in my class made me look up “gullible” to prove it was in there—and a remaining tradition in our schools that helps make learning tangible.

It is the feeling that comes from holding the entire English language in my hands (in this romantic moment, let’s pretend I am strong) that makes me want to fight for the over-priced, over-bound collection, just as I, long-time lover of the Internet, would fight for novels in their original forms.  However, it is not up to the Oxford University Press to make the decision to remain in print – it is up to us.

The responsibility here lies with us as consumers to recognize the significance of traditional mediums, if only to fight the grip digital is strengthening on our daily lives. Because convenience is coveted, we take our physical books for granted. They may not be updated in real-time, but that means they’re lasting. They may not be as immediately attainable as their digital counterparts, but that means, unlike the words floating on a screen, we can share an experience with them by engaging multiple senses.

A book on the shelf is worth 140-characters or a digital subscription, and dictionaries in particular are worth far more than a thousand words. The practicality and tangibility of books make for great reasons to keep their traditions alive. And if you choose to purchase a dictionary, you can be at ease knowing that, when the world’s Internet ends in some side effect of the 2012 Mayan Apocalypse, you will still be able to find that definition of “gullible.”

To reach reporter Jen Winston, click here.



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