Sunday, May 18, 2008

Obituary: The Compact Edition of The Oxford English Dictionary, Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically

I had a race last week with the editor I sit next at work: I swiped my paperback Oxford Dictionary of Current English off the shelf to see if I could find a definition in print before she could retrieve it online. She won.

It reminded me of my favorite Tall Tale from childhood, the story of John Henry, the steel-driving man who died trying to to out-work a steam drill. As a Minnesotan, I should have preferred Paul Bunyan to the railroad laborer who was replaced by a machine, but I like anachronisms.

This is why I'm so upset that the The Compact Edition of The Oxford English Dictionary, Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically is going out of print.

I know it's easier to read and quicker to use online. And I know my argument about surprise power outages during word emergencies is weak. But I prefer paper. When I'm working on the computer, whether I'm at work or at home, I use a paper dictionary to look up words.

The CEOED is still for sale ($399.95). It's "not an abridgement, but a direct photoreduction of the entire 20-volume set, with nine pages of the original on every nine-by-twelve page of the Compact." It's one 15-pound volume of 2402 pages, and it comes with a magnifying glass.

It's so big because: "The OED records not only words and meanings currently in use but also those that have long been considered obsolete." Like Boeotian (pronounced bee-ocean), a word I discovered browsing a three-volume edition of the OED. It refers to the ancient Greek culture and means "exceptionally dull or stupid."

But this soon-to-be obsolete edition is, in my estimation, inferior to the earlier, three-volume set, which condensed a mere four or so pages to every page. It can be read without a magnifying glass if your eyes are good.

And if you want the electronic version of the OED, you have to get it online. It costs $295 per year for a subscription. So while Oxford University Press is saving money by going out of print, we are not.

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