Word Perfect

For this edition of Seymours Prestige Homes Magazine, we caught up with Countdown TV celebrity Susie Dent to find out more about the nation’s favourite etymologist and lexicographer, and her Secret Life of Words tour.

Susie Dent has ruled Dictionary Corner on Channel 4’s flagship daytime show Countdown for more than 30 years and also acts as a steadying presence on the show’s ‘after-hours’ version, Eight out of Ten Cats Does Countdown, hosted by comedian Jimmy Carr.

Alongside her TV work, the Woking-born, mum of two has published 14 books all about, yes you guessed it, words. Her latest, An Emotional Dictionary, was released in October 2022 and is packed with information about forgotten words and phrases that have been used throughout the centuries to express how we feel. A lifelong lover of etymology (she studied Modern Languages at Oxford University), Susie has admitted that during lockdown she sought sanctuary in her dictionaries searching for words that captured the shared experience.

For the past six months the 58-year-old has been holding court across the country on her Secret Life of Words tour which promised an exploration of the ‘curious, unexpected, and downright surreal origins of the words we use every day’.

What made you want to go on tour?

The response I’ve received over the years to my word origins stories on Countdown made me realise how much we all care about language. So I decided it would be lovely to collect and share my greatest hits with new audiences, and to hear their questions as to where words come from, which words they would like to ban, and which they can’t get enough of.

You have been on the road now for quite some time. How is it going?

I’ve genuinely been so chuffed with the interactions of those coming to the show. And we have had quite a few laughs too. Thinking about your ‘Word of the Day’ on Twitter, do you ever struggle to come up with a word? Most of them are inspirations of the moment! A news story might catch my eye, or it might be a word that describes exactly how I’m feeling at that precise point. If I find I’ve overslept, for example, my word of the day might well be ‘hurkle-durkling’: old Scots for lounging in bed long after it’s time to get up.

With all the text speak and image and video-led social media are you surprised that people are still interested in the language?

No not at all. In fact, I think we are more interested than ever. I find it exciting to see English evolving right before our eyes – thanks not least to the new media available to us. There has never been a golden age of the language when English stood still and no one made mistakes. And there will always be changes that some of us don’t like, and others that we do. But as long as we notice them and care about them, I believe English will be in good shape.

Can you tell us a little about your latest book?

I’ve just written An Emotional Dictionary, which charts the known and unknown vocabulary for our many feelings and thoughts. It turns out there is a word for looking longingly at someone else’s food (that’s groaking), and for the joy we feel in the happiness of someone we love (confelicity). It feels really important to explore such words at a time when our emotions have been on a very long rollercoaster ride.

What led you to become a lexicographer?

I began working on French and German dictionaries – my first love – and then moved onto English lexicons. I only discovered the joys of etymology quite late on, and I’m so glad I did!

What were your feelings when you were asked to join Countdown?

Terror, imposter syndrome and wonder!

Is it hard to switch between the original version and Eight out of 10 Cats Does Countdown?

It was at first, when I was convinced I needed to be as funny as the comedians, knowing full well that I’m not! But I’ve realised that I am simply there to do my job, as well as laugh a lot. Both of those I can do! I’m very privileged to enjoy the brilliance of the show’s comedians at first hand.

Are you pleased that without changing the format too drastically ‘Cats’ has opened up a whole new audience?

It’s been great to witness our audiences laughing their heads off at the comedy of the show whilst also being determined to crack the letters and numbers rounds. That’s the joy of Countdown: you can’t help but join in. I think ‘Catsdown’ has also reminded many people about a show they grew up with but perhaps haven’t tuned into for a while.

Do you have a favourite Dictionary Corner companion?

So many! I would always put Chris Packham on my list – he is so knowledgeable and passionate, I could listen to him for hours. I love Jo Brand, who always comes up with her own ingenious nine-letter words, and [explorer] Sir Ranulph Fiennes gave me goose bumps with the stories of his adventures. There are many, many more. It really is impossible to choose.

Finally, what are your fondest memories of growing up in Surrey, and what one word would you use to sum up the county?

I loved the freedom of growing up in Surrey. I would take off on my bike and find a patch of grass or stretch of water to sit by and daydream. Those were my halcyon days. As for a single word, it would have to be ‘flippercanorious’: an old adjective meaning ‘blooming wonderful’!

Susie Dent’s latest book, An Emotional Dictionary, is available from all good bookshops.