Whatever Happened to the Canadian Oxford?

Summer, 2013 / No. 30

Every good magazine, newspaper, news organization, or publisher has a house dictionary—a spelling authority they decide to follow, for the sake of both accuracy and consistency. Publications based in the U.S. tend to lean toward Webster’s and its attachment to “American” spellings (-or and -er endings and the like), while Canadian publications often tend to favour Oxford and its “British” and, thus, “Canadian” spellings (-our, -re, and such). But there are no set rules: Americans may use Oxford and Canadians may use Webster’s and either may use one of a number of other dictionaries depending on what works best for them.

But what happens when a house dictionary suddenly ceases to exist or, more accurately, stops being updated? For a dictionary to be useful, it must continue to grow with its chosen language, adding new words as they enter the lexicon, and adjusting the usage (and sometimes spelling) of older words as need be. Though Webster’s has not had a major update since its ill-fated third edition, in 1961, it stays up to date in the form of the more frequently published Collegiate Dictionary. Oxford’s second edition, published in 1989, is somewhat overdue for an overhaul (a third edition is expected in 2037), but the press regularly publishes a number of smaller references, such as the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary and the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, the latter of which is Taddle Creek’s subject for today.

In 1998, Oxford University Press published the first edition of the Canadian Oxford to much fanfare. Both a critical success and a best-seller, the dictionary included such Canadianisms as “coureur de bois” and “toque” (and “Canadianism”). With a cover proclaiming it “The Official Dictionary of The Canadian Press,” it quickly became a mainstay in many a newsroom, and was adopted as the house dictionary by publications throughout the country. A second edition was released in 2004, including such new entries as “Nunavummiut” and “double-double.”

But in 2008, citing a downturn in the print dictionary market, Oxford laid off the staff of its Canadian dictionary division, promising to employ freelancers to help create updated future editions of its popular book. Nine years later, a third edition of the Canadian Oxford is nowhere in sight, leaving many organizations without an authoritative reference for the spelling of “Bieber” within easy reach.

Taddle Creek spoke recently to David Stover, the president of Oxford University Press Canada. He assured the magazine that the Canadian Oxford is still a going concern. “We certainly still sell a lot of copies,” he said, but noted that Oxford as a whole has seen a decline in print dictionary sales between ten and twenty per cent, year over year, for the past five years or so. In a world where Google can offer a quick spelling, definition, and audio pronunciation of nearly any word, why would the average non-academic or non-publisher bother paying for a dictionary? And unfortunately, those lost sales mean less revenue for an organization like Oxford to reinvest in updating its product. Mr. Stover mentioned Oxford does offer on-line references and he hopes someday this will include the Canadian Oxford—in fact, future editions of the Canadian Oxford could be compiled for on-line use first, with the print version ultimately derived from this source. In any case, an update remains years away.

What to do in the meantime? Perhaps the most noted adopter of the Canadian Oxford is the Canadian Press news agency. Taddle Creek asked James McCarten, C.P.’s Ottawa news editor and the overseer of The Canadian Press Stylebook, how C.P. is getting by without an updated version of the Canadian. “We haven’t had any conversation about what we’re going to do,” he said. “We obviously use the Canadian Oxford as our touchstone with a lot of terms, but it seems more and more we have to make these decisions on our own. It’s really not related to the lack of an update….Things are changing very quickly, and suddenly we’re confronted with, How do we deal with this issue? ”

How indeed. Though Taddle Creek’s main spelling reference is the complete Oxford English Dictionary, it does rely on the Canadian Oxford for newer words and, of course, words specific to Canada. Be it in print or on-line, Taddle Creek simply must have an authoritative, up-to-date spelling reference for its day-to-day editing activities. So, until the Canadian Oxford is a going concern once again, Taddle Creek feels it must demote it to one of several second references it will refer to, most likely the Shorter Oxford, C.P.’s Caps and Spelling, and (damn you, Oxford!) Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate. Taddle Creek admits having so many references makes it nervous, but it shares Mr. Stover’s optimistic enthusiasm when he predicts: “The on-line space is going to become a bit more stable than it has been so far, so at that point it may be easier to find a way forward.”

Taddle Creek certainly hopes so.