Oxford English Dictionary Fail

More than 20 years ago, my father – a dedicated bibliophile – gave me The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. If you’re not familiar with this dictionary, it’s the two volume version of the full Oxford English Dictionary. It’s published in microtype and ships with a magnifying glass.

I’ve used the dictionary happily for years. A few weeks ago though I ran into a problem. I was looking up the word “flimp” and couldn’t find it. Not only could I not find that word, I couldn’t find any of the words that should have been around it. In fact, I discovered that there were at least 40 pages missing (from page 1022 to page 1063) in volume one.

I contacted the publisher here in the US to make sure they were aware of the problem and to find out how they would correct it. What I was offered was a more recent edition at half price:

“As I understand it the version you have is more than 20 years old and out of print. I am sorry the error was not found and a new edition provided when we had them available. I was told I could offer you the 50% discount on a updated edition if you so choose. You wouldn’t ordinarily receive such a large discount from Oxford. I am sorry however, Customer Service is not authorized to replace such a high ticketed item that is now out of print. Please let me know if you decide to place an order, I will be happy to assist you.”

One thing that’s interesting about this response is the acknowledgement that they would have provided a replacement had the error been found at some undefined point in the past. Of course all of this could have been avoided had the publisher not distributed a faulty edition in the first place. It’s an interesting idea though: sell a defective product and then offer to sell the same product again at a discount. Am I the only one who finds this approach ridiculous?

When I said this was unacceptable here’s what I was told:

“We understand your frustration, and it should also be noted that the edition that you have was used as a promotion piece for Book of the Month Club and without any proof of purchase there is no way that we can verify that you or your father did actually buy the dictionary more than 20 years ago.
I’m sorry you find the offer unacceptable, but that’s the best we can do.”

I like that suggestion that perhaps I am lying – that my father did not necessarily purchase the books. Classy. I wrote back again saying the offer was unacceptable and that I’d be sharing my story. The response was terse:

“We absolutely stand behind the product. [Clearly they do not.] And you are free to publish that on any website you want. [Thanks for the clarification . . .]”

To me this is absurd. If a product is discovered to be faulty at a fundamental and avoidable level then the manufacturer (or publisher in this case) ought to take steps to repair or replace the product. Suggesting that the customer is lying and that they should repurchase the product (even at a discount) is insulting.

The Oxford English Dictionary is not an everyday product. It isn’t something that one replaces every few years. A dictionary that is missing words is not a very good dictionary and the OED has a reputation as the best there is for the English language. It’s unfortunate that in the past they distributed a defective product; it’s unfortunate that neither I (nor apparently anyone else) discovered this defect earlier; but at the end of the day providing a complete dictionary of the English language is their business and responsibility. As they assured me in our correspondence, they “absolutely stand behind the product.” Perhaps it would be helpful if they understood what those words mean.

2 thoughts on “Oxford English Dictionary Fail

  1. Samuel D. Conti says:

    Hello Greg,

    I think your response is measured and temperate. I too find the response and the implication that you (or I) are lying as you have described the defect and the means of acquisition unpleasant and unacceptable. I can assure you that I acquired the two-volume version of the OED lawfully and for the required consideration. The volumes were indeed part of a promotion by the Book of the Month Club. The means of acquisition does not alter the central fact that the publisher placed in the stream of commerce a defective product, the OED. The form that the dictionary is in and the means of acquisition are of no moment.

    I would not pursue the matter further except for the well-known (and deserved) reputation of the Oxford University Press for the highest standards in the publishing industry. I think the publisher would be grateful to be apprised of the defect and would make deliberate efforts to track the incidence of the defect and determine whether corrective action is possible.

    The proposed solution offered to you is unacceptable for several reasons, some of which you have mentioned in your exchange of e-mails. A more suitable response by the publisher would have been to offer you the CD-ROM version of the dictionary deeply discounted or, preferably at no cost.

    As you know, I have purchased the full hard-bound version of the dictionary with current supplements. I also have copies of both the PC and Apple compatible versions of the OED. I also recently purchased the Historical Thesaurus of the OED which I find very helpful. I also regularly buy philosophy, legal history, and sundry other publications from the OUP. In view of those long-time relations, I hope you can reach an accord suitable to you and the OUP.

    By the way, son, have you checked with David for whom I also acquired the two-volume version at about the same time as I bought yours? Is his copy similarly defective? If so, perhaps you can reach an understanding with the publisher suitable for you both. Be well, Dad

  2. Rebecca says:


    I discovered today that my fifth edition (2002) OED is also missing pages (pgs. 67-114). I will contact the publisher to alert them of this egregious error. I am not sure what sort of response I will get although I imagine it will be similar. I just wanted to let you know that you are not the only one who is outraged by this publishing error!


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