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'Oxford English Dictionary' may not be printed again

After more than two decades in production, the latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary may never make it to print, its publisher has said. Oxford University Press has blamed the rise in popularity of electronic publications and reference websites for a decline in demand for printed dictionaries.

Nigel Portwood, OUP's chief executive, suggested that the next edition of the OED would probably be available online only. "The print dictionary market is just disappearing; it is falling away by tens of per cent a year," he said. "Print is still important round here but, wherever possible, if there is an opportunity, we are moving out of it."

Currently, 15 per cent of the publishing house's business comes from digital revenues, with sales of e-books up 40 per cent compared to last year. Mr Portwood said the OED was one of the "long-term research projects we fund, which will never cover their costs but are something that we choose to do."

A team of 80 lexicographers has been working on the third edition since 1989, with no confirmed completion date in sight. The book is only 28 per cent finished, and publication could be as far away as 10 years from now. New or revised entries, however, are published every three months on the official OED website, with the next set of updates due in September.

The first edition of the multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1928, and the second edition in 1989. OUP publishes 500 dictionaries, thesauruses, and language reference titles in over 40 languages.

Despite its chief executive's scepticism, the publisher has not entirely ruled out the possibility of a third print edition of the OED. A final decision on the format will be taken when it is ready for publication, likely more than a decade from now.