OXFORD, England -- Oxford English Dictionary Senior Editor Fiona McPherson has one of the toughest jobs in the English language. She's part of a team of linguists, literature experts, pronunciation scholars and other "dictionary detectives" trying to get a grasp on an ever-expanding language - and fit all those words into a series of books, or dictionaries.
"We're adding new words all the time. In the space of time that I'm talking to you, I dread to think of how many new words have been coined," says McPherson.
But the future of the more than 130-year old Oxford English Dictionary (OED) may be headed further toward cyberspace. The dictionary detectives working on the dictionary's latest edition are playing down speculation that the sheer number of English words put into use since the 20-volume, second edition was published in 1989 could make version 3.0 too big and too expensive to print. The next edition - expected to be at least twice the size of the last - may be released online only.
"We haven't actually decided whether or not we are going to print, until we actually finish the [3rd edition] dictionary," says McPherson, who in her 17 years working for the Oxford English Dictionary can credit the introduction of the words "jazz hands" into the publication.
Oxford University Press is quick to point out that the concise and compact versions of the Oxford English Dictionary, commonly on sale at bookstores, aren't in danger of going out of print. OED editors say the decision whether to print the third edition of the complete OED - the multi-volume version more often used at libraries, universities and by scholars - is at least a decade away. Editors are say they're only about a third done with the revisions.
In an age where many people turn to their desktop, laptop or mobile device to search for words and their definitions, the OED is learning to adapt to the Internet age. Since the year 2000, OED revisions have been released online only.
"The research that we are doing can get out to the public arena more quickly [online] than if we were waiting until we got to the end," McPherson says.
A few blocks away at Oxford's Somerville College, third-year student Brendan Brett says he hopes OED makes another print run for edition three.
"I think it is important that places like public libraries and community libraries have the print editions so people who might not have access to the Internet, or to the OED subscriber access material can still access the full range of resources," Brett says.
Brett, a history major, says he loves looking up words in the EOD. "The extended entries have the citations of materials in which the word is used, and charts the development of the word in time," he says.
But third-year Oxford student Zoe Fannon says she hasn't used a print dictionary since high school. "Most of the study we do at university is based on the laptop. You just put the word into Google and go from there," she says.
The second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary sells for about $2,000.
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