OED goes online, but you can't afford it

The newest, most current version of the Oxford English Dictionary will soon be available, for a price.

By Craig Offman
September 8, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Ever since last year's "The Professor and the Madman," Simon Winchester's bestselling book about the compiling of the Oxford English Dictionary, the 120-year-old reference work seems to have had a hip transplant. Its publisher, Oxford University Press, announced last July that it has set aside $55 million to freshen up its entries for a third edition, and next year the dictionary will launch a Web site.

An inside source estimates that the online venture will cost in the low seven figures. The publisher plans to recoup the investment by charging subscribers to the Oxford English Dictionary Online an access rate of $795 per year. So even if the project, which launches in March 2000, winds up costing as much as $4 million, Oxford could break even by enrolling as few as 5,000 customers.


But according to Oxford's online product director, Royalynn O'Connor, profit is not the primary focus of the OED, which has never made money. Instead, the first mission of the project is to provide access to the dictionary, online or off. "It's not just for the Ivy League institutions or the rich scholarly research joints and media labs. Our objective is to get it into as many public libraries and as many schools as possible," O'Connor told Salon Books. "You can't do that by thinking that you have to make such a return on an investment."

Unlike the CD-ROM ($395) or the multi-volume set version of the OED (now on special at $995), the dictionary's Web site can be updated continually. In fact, as the OED is updated for the third edition (slated for publication in 2010), new and revised entries, in batches of 1,000, will be posted to the online dictionary quarterly, which will make it the most current version until the third edition appears.

Will this cut into the sales of the old, second edition of the multi-volume dictionary?" I don't see it as a disadvantage," says Frank Abate, the editor in chief of OED's U.S. dictionaries program. "There's a certain number of people who say, 'I don't want to buy books' and people who are bibliophiles, who love multi-volume sets. That will never go away."

Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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