'No, we shouldn’t just Google it': John Walsh laments the death of the reference book

Sales of reference books are sinking fast as we turn online for the answers to life's big – and small – questions. But our civilisation would be infinitely poorer if Roget's, Brewer's and Fowler's go out of print, argues John Walsh

Here come the new words, rolling and tumbling towards us in their shiny, multi-hued novelty like those thousands of coloured balls that cascaded down a street in that television commercial. These are the words that have just joined the language, and have been included in the 12th edition of The Chambers Dictionary, out this week.

You won't be surprised to learn that "retweet" and "vuvuzela" have been admitted to the language, along with over-used terms such as "national treasure" and recessional clichés 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).

Sceptics might wonder if words such as "globesity", far from being authentic popular slang on the streets of Dagenham or Detroit, were invented by a smart young lexicographer working at Chambers HQ, or were tweeted to the dictionary publishers by a smart alec in Tooting. But we have no time to worry about their status as echt English words, because there'll be more arriving in a few months, as Oxford University Press and its Cambridge equivalent and the other dictionary publishers bring out new editions with their own cargo of neologisms, and the publicity departments manufacture another flap over the admission of "metrosexual" or "rehab" to the hallowed temple of English.

You may detect a note of desperation in their pronouncements. But then they have much to despair about. Bluntly put, dictionaries are in trouble, and have been for years. The big, dusty, 2,000-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, to a record low of £9.2m. Single-language and bilingual dictionaries dropped 13 per cent. Other reference books, including atlases and home-learning titles, sank by 10 per cent. But as early as 2007 some publishers were predicting that paper dictionaries will die out completely, as the word-curious turn wholly 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. Some of these may be unfamiliar to 21st-century readers; they were once considered essential. 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. At least you knew the flipping word was to be found somewhere in the pages of Roget. If you were writing an article about translation and you'd already used the word "translation" four times and were searching for a word that meant something like "translation", you looked up Roget and found "version, rendering, crib, paraphrase, précis, abridgement, adaptation, decoding, decipherment..." along with several other semi-synonyms.

Fowler's Modern English Usage, which first appeared in 1926, was the 20th century's most influential style guide for writers – its author, Henry Watson Fowler, was anti-pretension, anti-pedantry, suspicious of old-fashioned rules of grammar and impatient with archaic terms and fancy foreign words. He was a sleek and witty writer, and it sometimes felt morally beneficial to be in his company.

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 scream 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 knowing that, for having it confirmed that you should never propose to a tyrant any scheme involving pain? Dipping into Brewer was always fun. Nowhere else would you be likely to stumble on the information that "hocus-pocus" – the word used by a magician to hoodwink his audience – is a satirical corruption of "hoc est corpus meum", the words said while the host is raised at the climax of the Catholic mass. Dipping into Fowler, you always came away knowing a lot more than when you opened it. There's a serendipitous joy in finding arcane information when turning the pages in search of something else.

Discovering the evolution of words is a constant pleasure. I once asked Magnus Magnusson, the late television quizmaster, if he'd managed to retain any of the million-odd pieces of information that had whizzed past him over the years on Mastermind. Very few, he said; but one was the derivation of the word "shibboleth". It means, of course, a slogan, catchphrase or "password" beloved of a certain group, sect or political party. He'd been delighted to find (in The Oxford English Dictionary) that it was the old Hebrew word for an ear of corn; and that, according to the Bible, during the war between the Gileadites and the Ephraimites, it was used as a lethal password – Ephraimites pronounced it "skibboleth" rather than "shibboleth" and any hapless soldier who couldn't say it properly was promptly executed.

Again – how pleasing to know this. It's precisely the kind of detail you'll find in a dictionary – and only in a paper dictionary with words on pages. There's shibboleth, and its fascinating etymology, in the current OED, and in my 10th-edition Chambers. But if I look it up online, on www.dictionary.cambridge.org, I'm given only the definition.

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 ( www.thefreedictionary.com makes a fair stab at being semantically comprehensive) – but of that word only, with no sense of its derivation or associations. Ask for a definition of "declare" and you'll get seven definitions of "declare" – but no helpful peripheral nods to "declaration", "declarative" or "declaredly". 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 www.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 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. Instead of having 40 or 50 terms for "wicked" or "wrong", they say, let us agree to say "ungood" to mean all of them – and, if emphasis is needed, "doubleplusungood".

And if you want to see where democratic lexicography is heading online, check out the Urban Dictionary (at www.urbandictionary.com). It will acquaint you with more sexual terms than you dreamt existed, will amaze you with the ironclad illiteracy and vulgarity of the contributors, and will make your head spin with its vast lexicon of racist abuse (such as the thousand-odd phrases containing the word "nigger"). It's put together by online users for the edification of others. And they sure aren't going to listen to the chaps from the Chambers and Oxford lexicographical departments deliberating about whether some of the words should be admitted to the English language some day. Online, they're here already...

It's easy to feel a nostalgic throb for the old reference library on your desk. As the dictionary market steadily declines, and sales of thesauruses plummet by a shocking 24 per cent, the very word "thesaurus" has never sounded more like a dinosaur. But we should not be downhearted. We could be seeing the start of something, rather than the end. I predict a retro-revolution in writers' vocabularies. 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 English words from the lexicon of Dickens, Milton, Dr Johnson, 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 will send them rushing to old-fashioned dictionaries to learn what on earth is meant by "absquatulate" and "jobbernowl". We shall not rest until every Independent reader is saying to him or herself, "I wonder what 'humdudgeon' means. I must just go and look it up..."

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