Oxford University Press editors have suggested that the Third Edition of the venerable Oxford English Dictionary, expected to be published in 2020 at the earliest, will almost certainly appear only in electronic form. But does this mean the glory days of the OED have come and gone? Not on your life. In fact, the greatest dictionary ever published is better than ever – online. And, if you can afford it, subscribing to and exploring its many aspects will be its own reward.

The OED has been a nonstop work-in-progress since 1858, and the modus operandi remains the same: the collaboration of professional lexicographers, language experts, and the general public. Not surprisingly,  the IT Revolution of the 1990s sped the process, especially the public participation part of the package. A statement on the OED Appeals page of reads, “OED editors are soliciting help in unearthing new information about the history and usage of English, including the earliest examples of particular words.” And, of course, English-speakers with anything to offer post their contributions online – a far cry from their nineteenth-century counterparts, who mailed in enough handwritten slips* to wallpaper the Houses of Parliament. Moreover, modern-day OED editors are able to interact with contributors in real time.

The Main Attraction and More

The homepage invites subscribers to “dive straight into the riches of the English language,” and ways to take the plunge are many. Immerse yourself in Oxford Word Blogs one day and check out Word of the Day on another. Or spend hours on end browsing Aspects of English – rotating commentaries on how English is used regionally and globally and reflects the mood of today’s world; the history of English from the Anglo-Saxon period to the present; and the oft-shifting meanings of words.

Such options are mere window dressing for the main attraction: the dictionary itself, with 600,000-odd words – about 18 percent more than were found in the original. Better yet, is updated every three months, with the addition of new words and phrases (e.g., geekery, heart attack on a plate), fresh citations of a word’s usage, and so forth. The original OED accompanied its definitions with 2.4 million quotations,** while the present version boasts more than 3 million.

No Free Ride

At $295 a year in U.S. dollars, a subscription doesn’t come cheap. But it’s a bargain for full access to a work so monumental –  the most ambitious lexicographical project ever undertaken. Think of it this way: In you’re buying more than 150 years of research and compilation. The slips in the OED Archives include the originals from the 1860s and all received since, an astounding 15 million contributions from sixteen generations of readers and listeners from around the world.

*Slip was the word the paper on which contributors wrote by hand, and it still applies to submissions sent electronically.

**Quotations are sentences (or parts thereof) from a publication. They aim to place a word in context, and the date of the work the word is taken from provides historical context as well. For instance, in the OED’s Definition 1 of communion (Sharing or hold in common with others”), one of the quotations is from Samual Taylor Coleridge’s periodical The Friend: “1809–10  In France there was no public credit, no communion of interest.” In Definition 2.c (“Intimate personal converse, mental or ideal”), the quotation is from William Wordsworth’s Poems on the Naming of Places: “1800 She who dwell with me, Whom I have loved with such communion…”

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