Third OED unlikely to make it to print

University libraries may not have to allocate a whole stack of shelves to house the third Oxford English Dictionary, as a representative from the Oxford University Press has said it's unlikely to make it into print.

According to the Press Association, the publisher's chief executive Nigel Portwood claimed "the print dictionary market is just disappearing. It is falling away by tens of percent a year." When asked if the third edition would be printed in the form of physical books, he also reportedly said: "I don't think so."

It's worth bearing in mind that the full Oxford English Dictionary isn't one of the usual single-volume editions you see in bookshops. The second edition, which was released in 1989, sprawls over 20 large volumes. According to the Oxford University Press, only 28 per cent of the work on the third edition has been completed by its team of 80 lexicographers.

However, this isn't particularly surprising when you consider there was a gap of 56 years between the second edition and the final supplement of the first edition in 1933. The original Oxford English Dictionary still featured over 1,700 definitions from Samuel Johnson's original A Dictionary of the English Language, and some of Johnson's definitions still survive today.

Despite Portwood's comments, the Oxford University Press says that no official decision has been made yet. "It is likely to be more than a decade before the full edition is published and a decision on format will be taken at that point," said a representative from the publisher.

It's difficult to see a market for a multi-volume print dictionary now, and it's even less likely to be a big seller in a decade, so Portwood's comments probably hit the nail on the head. However, we'd be surprised if smaller editions such as the Concise OED suffered the same fate so quickly.

Either way, it looks as though printed reference books are quickly becoming a relic of the last century.