An article in the New York Times Magazine this week lamented the decision of Oxford University Press to not print another edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, at least for the foreseeable future. To be sure, the editors at Oxford continue to research out and add new words to this most venerable dictionary, but they are doing so online only. In my mind, this is a good use of technology, but also gives me a dire sense of foreboding.
The object of the OED has always been to gather together the words of the English language into one place and give them not only a definition, but a history. There are many words whose definitions have completely changed since their initial usage, and newly created words that are just being added to the official keeper of the language- the OED. They are not erased when the definitions change or the word falls out of use. They are recorded there for eternity- which creates a problem.
At one time, I owned my own copy of the OED, being the book junkie that I am. That collection of words came in 12 heavy volumes. I am sure that an entire tree was used in the production of that one set. Which brings me to a proper use of technology.
Oxford University Press continues to update the OED, but only online. This allows the dictionary to be revised and updated on-the-fly. In waiting for a print edition to be revised and printed, ever more words may be added to the language and definitions and usage may have changed. And, you don't have to kill a tree (or many trees) to print a new edition. This is a wonderful way in which technology is being used in publishing.
My lament is this. How many people go to the OED.com versus Wikipedia or Dictionary.com? My guess is, far fewer than you might suspect. The OED online requires a subscription fee that is the equivalent of a car payment, whereas Wikipedia or Dictionary.com are free. But, we have all heard of the problems that plague Wikipedia. Dictionary.com offers definitions, but there have been instances where I've tried to find a definition that I know belongs to a word, but Dictionary.com only offers the most current definition, not the most complete definition and I can't find what I'm looking for.
Are we dumbing down the language, allowing the general public to define meaning without any scholarly research, or by providing only the most recent and popular usage of a word? If the OED can slip quietly into the ether of the Internet, what is next? Webster's? Elements of Style? Charlotte's Web? Are we headed down the slippery slope beginning at the bastion of the English language? If the OED no longer has physical presence in our libraries or homes do all books have the same fate? Then what of our libraries, our educational system, our children, our future?
While the demise of the printed OED may not have the impact of, say, global warming, it may ultimately have a devastating effect on the future of our literacy.