In the dumbed-down world of mass media, where evidence of learning can be frowned upon, the success of Susie Dent is a turn-up for the books.
Not only has she made a career out of explaining words – via TV’s Countdown, on a Twitter account with half a million followers, and now in a hit radio podcast – she has also brought an educational element to the world of sit-down comedy, via Countdown’s mash-up with Jimmy Carr’s 8 Out of 10 Cats, in which her nine-letter anagrams compete for attention with the four-letter words exchanged by the wise-cracking panellists, a combination that has to be aired after the watershed.
It’s an unlikely fate for a convent-educated, self-confessed “nerd” who, even before she could read, used to study “the back of shampoo bottles”, fascinated by the multilingual hieroglyphics. Or who later, on family road trips, and while her glamorous sister read magazines, would have her “head stuck in a French or German vocabulary book”, too engrossed to get out of the car.
Her fame is also a triumph, rare these days, for nuns. She attended the Marist School in Oxford and has nothing bad to say about the experience. On the contrary: "It was a very happy time. I was definitely a geek, long before it was cool. The school suited people who were quiet and got on with it. That was me."
She had "a fantastic German teacher" there, who must have influenced her decision to specialise in that language: useful for a deeper understanding of English. But before her Oxbridge entry exams, unusually for a girl, she also topped up with a preparatory term in nearby Eton College, at a time when Boris Johnson was a student there. The small number of females attending this male bastion were advised to dress "attractively but not provocatively".
Then she studied modern languages in Oxford before completing a rarefied education with a master’s in German at Princeton, the Ivy League’s New Jersey branch.
In one sense, to borrow Orson Welles's joke about his apprenticeship in Dublin's Gate Theatre, she could be said to have started her career at the top and worked her way down. Before television, in the early 1990s, she had a job with Oxford University Press, helping compile dictionaries.
Then Countdown came calling and, after initial reluctance – “because I thought I’d be hopeless” – she agreed to become one of its resident lexicographers in 1992. Nearly 30 years and more than 2,500 programmes later, she’s still there: extraordinary longevity on a programme that itself has broken records for durability.
In the meantime, she also returned to her roots, compiling a series of “language reports” for the Oxford English Dictionary. After that came her move into late-night television. The combination of 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown started as one of several “specials” to celebrate Channel 4’s 30th anniversary in 2012. But it proved so popular as to earn its own series and it too is still going strong.
'Swearing has physiological benefits – it increases cortisol levels and makes people feel better'
On that occasion, despite the dramatic change in style, Dent didn’t hesitate. “I was nervous at first because I’m woefully aware that I’m not a comedian. I was afraid I’d let the side down.” But she soon realised she “wasn’t there for the comedy”.
She was there for the words, as usual. So, it turned out, were the audience. More surprisingly, she noticed that the smart-arse panellists took the game seriously, too. Any doubts that she could not make the crossover were removed when Carr treated her as disrespectfully he does everyone else. “He’s incredibly rude to me,” she says: “I took that as a compliment.”
Ever the language student, she is struck by the part swear words play, there and in everyday life. When somebody on the show says “F**k off, Jimmy”, for example, it always gets a laugh, although the sentiment is hardly original. Dent suggests this is because swearing has “physiological benefits – it increases cortisol levels and makes people feel better”.
She mentions an experiment in which the subjects had to hold their hands in ice-cold water and could do so for longer if they were allowed to say, for example, “Boll**ks!”, rather than limit themselves to polite complaint or silence.
What we call bad language also seems to be much less liable to change that other areas of English. Of the most popular rude words, Dent says, “the top five are remarkable consistent over the years”.
This reminds me to mention “gobshite”, which if not in the British “top five” is a favourite term of abuse in Irish-English. It made its belated debut in the New York Times this summer, I tell her, according to a search engine that records such events.
But in an impressive display of erudition, Dent doesn’t even have to look it up before pointing out that gobshite’s first known appearance in print was also in New York, in 1910, where it was slang for “enlisted seaman” (possibly because of the sailor’s habit of chewing tobacco and spitting it out). Only since the 1940s did it start appearing this side of the Atlantic, as “chiefly Irish”.
She believes the internet has been a boon for 'tribal lexicons': minority vocabularies whose users were isolated in the past
It's no surprise, somehow, to learn that one of her favourite historical lexicographers is Francis Grose, who in 1785 published a Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. Coming 30 years after Samuel Johnson's pioneering compilation of English in general, Grose's book collected 9,000 expressions that were common parlance then but did not usually make it into scholarly texts.
He was a scholar himself, specialising in antiquities. Indeed, it was while in Dublin, researching a work on Ireland's ancient ruins and monuments, that he died in 1791 and had to be buried in Drumcondra, in the family plot of a friend: the great architect of Georgian Dublin, James Gandon. He is now best remembered for the dictionary, especially by Dent: "I love that book. It makes me laugh."
Contrary to what you might expect, however, her home is not groaning under the weight of dusty old volumes such as his. “I have no grand library – I’m a bit of a disappointment in that respect,” she says. Her main reference is the vast OED Online, with its 600,000 words and 3.5 million quotations: “I consult it every day.”
Unlike many who purport to love language, Dent does not despair about falling standards of correct usage – or even about the shrinking vocabulary of “Globish”, as the international dialect of English, adopted for multinational business meetings and devoid of all colour, is known.
For one thing, she believes the internet has been a boon for “tribal lexicons”: minority vocabularies whose users were isolated in the past but are now thriving online. More generally, she rejects the notion, cherished by pedants everywhere, that standards are going to pot: “There has never been a golden age of English. Even in the era of Keats and Shakespeare, people complained about the abuse of language.”
She quotes “a lovely line” by Johnson on the impossibility of freezing English in a particular period. It would be “as futile as lashing the wind”, he said. On the other hand, she does admit annoyance at such popular habits as people now adding an extra syllable to the words “grievous” or “mischievous”, while she also appreciates their logic. She also finds herself mildly disturbed at hearing her younger daughter pronounce the eighth letter of the alphabet as “haitch” rather than “aitch”.
The latter has long been considered standard in England but the former is advancing on all fronts, especially among the young. Caribbean and (Catholic) Irish emigrants may have been an influence. When I tell her that how you pronounce the letter can identify your ethnoreligious background in certain parts of Ireland, specifically the northeast, this appears to be one thing about English she didn't know: "It's a shibboleth? Really? That's interesting."
Even today, she confesses, she will still occasionally find herself 'reading the back of a ketchup bottle'
Since 2019, she has also been the co-host of a weekly radio podcast on language, Something Rhymes With Purple, alongside Gyles Brandreth, writer, actor, and former Tory MP. It too looks at words and their meanings, including their tendency to evolve. Brandreth used to be “a real stickler” for the rules, she says, “but he’s more relaxed now”.
The podcast was his idea and at first she wasn’t keen, even though she now agrees with him that it is “the most you thing ever”. For a person who still “likes flying under the radar”, it’s certainly a more natural fit for her than television. And it too has been a big hit, earning 2 million downloads and winning Best Entertainment at this year’s British Podcast Awards.
Of the latter, Dent is unashamedly proud: “I hate to blow our own trumpet but I will. It meant the world to win that award. It was lovely.”
Her other main platform these days is a Twitter account (subtitled "That woman in Dictionary Corner", after her Countdown role), which now has almost as many followers as the Online OED has words: 568,000 and climbing. It tweets a curious word or etymology daily, sometimes responding to requests.
A reader despairing of Britain’s Brexit debate asked recently if there was a term for someone who “sticks with a view despite clear evidence to the contrary”. Naturally, there was. Dent reached back into the 16th century for a “mumpsimus”. This was not to be confused with another of her favourites, an “ipsidexitist”, also featured that week and a person who “makes assertions of fact without any supporting evidence”.
It was a natural step from there to her latest book, Word Perfect, which marries words and their meanings with the almanac format to present “etymological entertainment for every day of the year”. On the date of our interview, for example, which in 1792 was when the US Congress officially chose the dollar as its currency, she takes readers back to 16th-century Bohemia and a valley where silver was mined.
The resultant coins circulated as Schlickenthalers or Joachimsthalers, being the name of the mine owner or the town, along with the suffix “thaler”, meaning “something from the valley”. The prefixes fell away eventually. The rest morphed into the “dollar” we know today.
But the book also features more recent additions to the language, including the newest subset of English words: the “coronalexicon”. A case in point is “quarantini”: the experimental cocktail you make “from ingredients at the back of your lockdown cupboard”. I forgot to ask if Dent has herself made such a drink. If she has, you can bet she checked the labels on the jars with more than usual interest. Even today, she confesses, she will still occasionally find herself “reading the back of a ketchup bottle”.
Susie Dent’s Word Perfect: Etymological Entertainment for Every Day of the Year is published on October 1st by John Murray Press