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Oxford University Press's 'jewel in the crown'

For Americans, perhaps the best-known product of the Oxford University Press is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). And no wonder. As R.W. Burchfield, chief editor of the Oxford Dictionaries, notes, ''The main market for the OED is . . . the United States.''

Although Oxford University Press put out 900 new titles last year in fields ranging from medicine to humor, the visitor to Oxford's old Walton Street headquarters will find the OED a lively subject of conversation - and a definite object of pride.

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Richard Charkin, deputy publisher in charge of the Dictionaries Department, points out that Oxford's dictionaries have a double value for the Press. Not only have they established the Oxford editors as authorities on the English language. They have also created a demand for dictionaries the world over, allowing sales representatives marketing the OED and its 20-some offshoot dictionaries to represent the Press more broadly in foreign lands.

Asked if the dictionaries are a big moneymaking operation that helps to support other OUP books, Mr. Charkin points out that each volume of the Supplement (three are published to date) to the 12-volume OED loses about $1.4 million. Emphasizing Oxford's commitment to publishing top-quality scholarship no matter how high the initial cost, Charkin claims the $560,000 spent on editorial work is earned back immediately, but that the million-plus dollars spent on production costs is earned back only over a long period.

But Charkin, as he himself notes good-humoredly, is ''just a publisher, concerned with trying to make money out of this sort of thing.'' Burchfield, who is also editor of the OED Supplements, addresses the same question. ''He's speaking as a publisher, I'm speaking as a lexicographer,'' Burchfield says. ''You can do the accountancy in any way you like, but bear in mind that the editorial costs and the production costs of the 12 volumes of the OED have long, long since been absorbed, while the moneys still pour in. The accountancy of it all is a credit balance. At some stage in the whole period of 100 years, the dictionary operation turned into a huge profitmaking venture. And whatever the costs of the individual volumes of the Supplement, and whatever the immediate losses, there is no doubt whatever that in the long term it will be commercially profitable.''

Burchfield, too, sees a double benefit in the dictionary operation. ''In terms of prestige - because you must put a value upon prestige as well as upon the actual sales figures - without the OED the Oxford University Press would be without a jewel in the crown.''

This crown jewel first glimmered in the imagination of James Murray, a Victorian schoolmaster who dreamed of building a dictionary on historical principals.

Starting with cubbyholes full of paper slips, Murray laid the structure for dictionary compilation at Oxford that has continued, with only a brief pause, until today. And the process is now taking new directions. Charkin is itching to make an announcement of ''news on the dictionary front.'' He says that ''we are on the forefront of where the new technology is impinging on scholarly publishing. As our technology bloke says, what we're trying to do is meld or blend the skills of scholars and technicians, which is exceedingly difficult to do.

''But if we can make it work, it will be marvelous,'' he smiles.

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Readers of our ''University Presses'' series will be kept abreast of the developments leading to the OED's leap into the computer age.

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