The curious search online as dictionaries gather dust

By John Walsh

Photo / Martin Sykes
Photo / Martin Sykes

Here come the new words, rolling towards us in their shiny, multi-hued novelty like the thousands of coloured balls that cascaded down a street in a television commercial.

These are the words that have just joined the language, and have been included in the 12th edition of the Chambers Dictionary.

You won't be surprised to learn that "retweet" and "vuvuzela" have been admitted to the language, with over-used terms such as "national treasure" and recessional cliches such as "double dip" and "quantitative easing".

Other new entries take a moment for their meaning to become clear. There's "crowdsourcing" (meaning to canvass suggestions from the general public before adopting a course of action), "freegan" (someone who finds all their food, gratis, in supermarket bins), "upcycle" (to transform waste products into better-quality products) and "globesity" (the worldwide outbreak of morbid fatness in civilised countries).

There'll be more arriving in a few months, as Oxford University Press, its Cambridge equivalent and the other dictionary publishers bring out new editions with their own cargo of neologisms.

You may detect a note of desperation in their pronouncements. But they have much to despair about.

Bluntly put, dictionaries are in trouble, and have been for years.

The big, dusty, 2000-page family dictionary has become surplus to requirements, as potential users have turned to the internet for their definitions. The figures for 2010 show that spending on dictionaries fell for the seventh consecutive year.

Single-language and bilingual dictionaries dropped 13 per cent. Other reference books, including atlases, sank by 10 per cent.

But as early as 2007 some publishers were predicting that paper dictionaries would die out as the word-curious turned online. And if they go the way of reel-to-reel tape recorders, vinyl records and camera film, we'll have lost a substantial source of intellectual delight: the reference shelf.

The reference shelf used to be something no professional writer or scrupulous journalist would be without: the books represented a small army of helpers in the fight to express oneself in writing or to understand obscure words or references in someone's work.

The volumes jostling for shelf space would be the Chambers Dictionary (or the Concise Oxford English), Roget's Thesaurus, the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, Fowler's Modern English Usage, Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, the Oxford Companion to English Literature, and the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors.

Roget's Thesaurus was the work you consulted when the word you were looking for was on the tip of your tongue but refused to come out.

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable dates back to 1870, when the Rev E. Cobham Brewer set out to explain to a new generation of autodidacts - aspiring readers without a university education - the literary allusions or learned phrases they met when reading classic authors or Times leaders.

If you were puzzled by a mention, in a Victorian novel, of "Phalaris's bull", Brewer would tell you about the hapless brass sculptor Perillos, who proposed a new torture method to Phalaris, the tyrant of Agrigentum. He offered to cast a bronze bull with a door in its side; the victim would be locked in and roasted to death, while his wails and screams would issue from the bull's throat like a thrilling bovine bellow. The tyrant agreed to the commission - but said it should be tried out first on Perillos himself. Don't you feel better for having it confirmed that you should never propose to a tyrant any scheme involving pain?

Dipping into Fowler, you came away knowing a lot more than when you opened it. There's a serendipitous joy in finding arcane information when searching for something else.

Traditional dictionaries are being gradually overtaken by a number of shrill online sites. Press the "search" key and, four times out of five, you'll get a curt, one-line definition. If you're lucky, you'll be given several shades of meaning (thefreedictionary.com makes a fair stab at being semantically comprehensive) - but of that word only, with no sense of its derivation or associations.

When online, you are never encouraged to browse, or stray, or graze around the word-meadow above and below the definition you've sought.

Those who suspect that online dictionaries are, to an alarming extent, callow, partial, crass and academically threadbare enterprises should read a recent blog on dictionary.com, which reported that several words have been deemed "obsolete" by Collins lexicographers (they include "charabanc" and "aerodrome") and won't be used in future Collins print dictionaries.

"An argument could be made that, if a word is rarely used or searched for, it may not matter if it is in the dictionary or not," the website ruminated.

This argument has been seen before - in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, where The Party deems that language has become too sprawling and unwieldy, and invents Newspeak to keep it under greater control.

Faced with the internet's fascination with street language and lack of interest in old words, I can see us taking a perverse delight in embracing stridently Baroque, efflorescent words from the lexicon of Dickens, Milton, Dr Johnson and Shakespeare himself, until our paragraphs are full of "slubberdegullion" and "tatterdemalion", "dundreary" and "mulligrubs", "snoozle" and "wallydrag".

We will drive readers mad with inkhorn terminology. We shall not rest until every reader is saying to him or herself, "I wonder what 'humdudgeon' means. I must just go and look it up ..."

Online

thefreedictionary.com

urbandictionary.com

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