Publisher Oxford University Press said Sunday that burgeoning demand for the dictionary's online version has far outpaced demand for the printed versions. By the time the lexicographers behind the dictionary finished revising and updating the latest edition - a gargantuan task that will take many more years - publishers are doubtful there will still be a market for the printed form.
The online Oxford English Dictionary now gets 2 million hits a month from subscribers. The current printed edition - a hefty 20-volume, 750 pound ($1,165) set published in 1989 - has sold about 30,000 sets in total.
"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.
Although the comments relate primarily to the full-length dictionary, the publisher says the convenience of the electronic format is also affecting demand for its shorter dictionaries.
The first instalment of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1884, and 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" 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, it simply includes every single word.
A team of 80 lexicographers are preparing the third edition of the dictionary, which is just under one-third complete. Oxford University Press hasn't yet given a date for when the third edition will be ready.
The Oxford English Dictionary first went online in 2000, offering paying subscribers a much faster way to look up words. It's also helped the dictionary catch up with rapid semantic changes and the large numbers of new words: updates to the dictionary's online version are added every three months.
In December, the online version will be relaunched to include a historical thesaurus to make cross-referencing easier.