The dictionary’s owner, Oxford University Press (OUP), said the impact of the internet means OED3 will probably appear only in electronic form.
The most recent OED has existed online for more than a decade, where it receives two million hits a month from subscribers who pay an annual fee of £240.
“The print dictionary market is just disappearing, it is falling away by tens of per cent a year,” Nigel Portwood, the chief executive of OUP, told the Sunday Times. Asked if he thought the third edition would be printed, he said: “I don’t think so.”
Almost one third of a million entries were contained in the second version of the OED, published in 1989 across 20 volumes.
The next full edition is still estimated to be more than a decade away from completion; only 28 per cent has been finished to date.
OUP said it would continue to print the more familiar Oxford Dictionary of English, the single-volume version sold in bookshops and which contains more contemporary entries such as vuvuzela, the plastic trumpet encountered in the 2010 football World Cup.
Mr Portwood said printed dictionaries had a shelf life of about another 30 years, with the pace of change increased by the popularity of e-books and devices such as the Apple iPad and Amazon’s Kindle.
Simon Winchester, author of ‘The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary’, said the switch towards online formats was “prescient”.
He said: “Until six months ago I was clinging to the idea that printed books would likely last for ever. Since the arrival of the iPad I am now wholly convinced otherwise.
“The printed book is about to vanish at extraordinary speed. I have two complete OEDs, but never consult them – I use the online OED five or six times daily. The same with many of my reference books – and soon with most.
“Books are about to vanish; reading is about to expand as a pastime; these are inescapable realities.”
The first dictionary in recognisable format was Samuel Johnson’s, which was published in 1755. It remained the standard text for 150 years until the OUP embarked on its project in 1879.
The first OED came out in sections from 1884, completed in 1928.
Despite its worldwide reputation, the OED has never made a profit. The continuing research costs several million pounds a year. “These are the sort of long-term research projects which will never cover their costs, but are something that we choose to do,” Mr Portwood said.
A spokesman for the OUP said a print version of OED3 could not be ruled out “if there is sufficient demand at the time” but that its completion was “likely to be more than a decade” away.
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