Oxford University Press, the publisher, said Sunday so many people prefer to look up words using its online product that it's uncertain whether the dictionary's next edition will be printed on paper at all.
The digital version of the Oxford English Dictionary now gets 2 million hits a month from subscribers, who pay $295 a year for the service in the U.S.. In contrast, the current printed edition - a 20-volume, 750-pound ($1,165) set published in 1989 - has sold about 30,000 sets in total.
It's just one more sign that the speed and ease of using Internet reference sites - and their ability to be quickly updated - are phasing out printed reference books. Google and Wikipedia are much more popular research tools than the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and dozens of free online dictionaries offer word meanings at the click of a mouse. Dictionary.com even offers a free iPhone application.
By the time the lexicographers behind the century-old Oxford English Dictionary finish revising and updating its third edition - a gargantuan task that will take a decade or more - publishers doubt there will be a market for the printed form.
"At present we are experiencing increasing demand for the online product," a statement from the publisher said. "However, a print version will certainly be considered if there is sufficient demand at the time of publication."
Nigel Portwood, chief executive of Oxford University Press, told The Sunday Times in an interview he didn't think the newest edition will be printed. "The print dictionary market is just disappearing. It is falling away by tens of percent a year," he said.
His comment related primarily to the full-length dictionary, but he said the convenience of the electronic format also is affecting demand for its shorter dictionaries.
It's too early to predict whether digital dictionaries will completely wipe out the printed format, and Portwood stressed that Oxford University Press has no plans to stop publishing print dictionaries. Schools still rely primarily on printed versions, the publisher said, and demand for its best-seller, the Advanced Learner's Dictionary, is still high among nonnative English learners.
Ben Robinson owns a micro-print version of the full Oxford that requires a magnifying glass to read, but the London part-time writer said he rarely uses it these days. Instead, he now consults the iPhone dictionary and thesaurus most often, and sometimes uses the online Oxford English Dictionary when he wants to find out the full history or more meanings of a word.
"Few people own the full version so maybe now that it is online more people can gain access to it," said the 30-year-old. He would still mourn the loss of the printed version, he added.
Launched in 2000, the online Oxford also makes it easier for its publisher to catch up with rapid semantic changes and new words. Editors put updates out every three months. In March, for example, they added words such as "techy" and "superbug" to the online version.
The dictionary was first published in parts starting in 1884. It kept growing for decades until the complete text went out in 1928. It was the first comprehensive English dictionary since Samuel Johnson's "A Dictionary of the English Language" was published in 1755, and has since evolved to become the accepted authority on the meaning and history of words.
The version users now consult - the second edition - has 291,500 entries, plus 2.4 million quotations as sources. Unlike shorter printed versions such as the single-volume Oxford Dictionary of English, it doesn't track current usage.
A team of 80 lexicographers are preparing the third edition of the dictionary, which is just one-quarter finished. Oxford University Press hasn't yet given a date for when the third edition will be ready.
In December, the online version will be relaunched to include a historical thesaurus to make cross-referencing easier.