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The Demise of a Dictionary: Is the Canadian Oxford Dictionary a Victim of its Own Success?

Canadian Oxford Dictionary cover

The second and possibly last edition of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary (COD) was published in 2004. Sales are still going strong. Could this be partly why Oxford University Press has not published a new edition in 15 years?

In its summer 2013 issue, Taddle Creek, a general interest Toronto literary magazine, asked the question, “Whatever Happened to the Canadian Oxford?” Taddle Creek spoke to David Stover, who was then the president of Oxford University Press Canada. He assured the magazine that the COD is “still a going concern.” “We certainly still sell a lot of copies,” he said. This is my point exactly. Moreover, the COD, similar to other print dictionaries, is probably seeing a decline in print dictionary sales and is considering online versions in the future.

Uniquely Canadian references

How important is the COD? The first edition was a runaway bestseller, spending over a year on the Globe and Mail’s bestseller list. The dictionary combines international English with English as it is spoken in Canada. Definitions present the Canadian meaning of a word first. 

The 2004 second edition of the COD contains about 300,000 entries, including 5,000 new words and 2,200 uniquely Canadian terms (like double-double) as well as unique Canadian meanings, usage notes, idiomatic expressions, biographical entries and place names. It also contains information on Canadian pronunciation and spelling, which has features of British and American spelling. 

Simply put, the 2004 edition blew away the competition for years to come. It was forward-looking in its treatment of technology words (such as web, Web and website), which people were struggling with at the time it was published. It is comprehensive for a “short” dictionary, even including names of Indigenous bands. In Canada, a band is an Indian community officially recognized as an administrative unit by the federal government. Band council is also a Canadian term, as are Indigenous and First Nation. As you probably know, in the federal government, the term Indigenous has replaced IndianAboriginal and Amerindian, except in the Indian Act. Amerindian, used in the U.S., is seldom heard in Canada because, in Canada, American Indian means someone living in the U.S., according to the COD. Who said that Canadian English is not different from American English?

Alternative dictionaries

Then in 2008, Oxford shut down the COD project by laying off its staff of lexicographers in Canada, including the dictionary’s well-known editor, Katherine Barber. At the time, Oxford promised to employ freelance editors (according to Canwest News Service) to help create future editions. However, 15 years later, there is still no news of an upcoming edition, leaving Canadian professional writers and organizations in the lurch.

Some alternative dictionaries that offer information not contained in the COD include the Collins Canadian Dictionary, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Which one do you prefer?

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Barbara McClintock

Barbara McClintock (she/her/elle), who is a certified translator not the Nobel prize winner, enjoys editing and revision in a bilingual context. She dabbles in writing because of her love for the English and French languages and her interest in bridging cultures.

5 Comments on “The Demise of a Dictionary: Is the Canadian Oxford Dictionary a Victim of its Own Success?”

  • Margaret F Sadler


    I love my COD. When I need to carry a dictionary with me, I carry the OCD (2nd edition, 2006), supplied by a client. (Is that just an abbreviated version of the 2004 COD?)
    I’d appreciate a new edition of the COD; I find myself scanning newer Canadian reference books to find how we’re spelling some words that aren’t in the COD — Editing Canadian English, Canadian Press Stylebook, Canadian Press Caps and Spelling.
    In the meantime, while working, I have Merriam-Webster online open in a tab in my browser.

    • I have long lamented the absence of an updated Oxford Canadian Dictionary. I fear I shall never see one. This is my go-to dictionary at home. On the run, I use Merriam-Webster because the OCD is not available online.

  • Buying my own copy of the COD was a momentous occasion for me when I went freelance. I’ve been relying on it since I created my first in-house style guide around the same time they shut down the project and frequently wish we had an updated version, given how quickly language is changing now. I too rely on the Canadian Press reference books to help bridge the gap, but continue to long for a new COD.

  • Barring a COD update, I usually rely on Collins or Merriam-Webster. I must confess, however, that I haven’t come across many Canadian terms or usage notes on either of these platforms. Then again, it’s entirely possible that I’m not looking in the right places!

    On another note, it was a good idea to include biographical entries and appendices in the second COD edition. The trouble is, some of these entries and appendices are out of date by today’s standards. For example, personalities such as Leonard Cohen and Rita MacNeil have since died. So anyone looking at these entries would assume they’re still alive, because all you see are their birth dates.

    In the meantime, I will take a look at the dictionaries Ms. McClintock has suggested. I can only hope that entries are up to date.

    • Frances Peck


      Like the other commenters, I usually turn to Canadian Press (Caps & Spelling) and Merriam-Webster online.

      But I have so many questions that only a new edition of the COD could answer. Where do we stand on the growing US tendency to close up compounds formed with prefixes such as «anti-» and «pre-«? What are the current spelling preferences for technology-related words? And what about the countless new words, and new usages of old words, that have entered our vocabulary since the last edition?

      I have been in linguistic mourning since OUP shuttered the offices of the best dictionary this country has ever seen. Sounds like there’s no comfort in sight.

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