Take a journey into the curious, unexpected, and downright surreal origins of the words we use every day, as Susie Dent tours the UK with The Secret Life of Words. The staple of Countdown and of course 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown will retell the adventures that lie hidden within such words as lasagne and bugbear, and explain such oddities as the silent h in ghost and the mysterious disappearance of kempt, gormful, and ruly. Here she talks her time at Oxford, Jimmy Carr and where the dead chicks go.
Growing up, was there a specific book or piece of writing that triggered your love of words?
Strangely perhaps, given my job now, it was French and German stories that really captivated me. I loved the fact that I was entering a strange new world in which every word had to be unpicked and decoded. And, nerd that I was (and am), I loved to take vocabulary books with me everywhere. On long car journeys I’d lose myself in pages and pages of new words to be learned and savoured.
Did school ever make language hard to love?
It was the opposite for me. I fell in love with German in particular and loved its rules and grammar – they were the gateway for my learning English grammar, actually. I had a German teacher who managed to be pretty strict whilst still enthusing us all with this new, gnarly, and incredibly rich language. These days, I think there’s sometimes too heavy a focus on grammatical rules for their own sake, which can detract from the beauty of a language.
How fondly do you look back on your time at University of Oxford?
Very. The early days of uni were frantic and overwhelming, and it took me a while to find my feet. I didn’t come with a ready-made set of friends from school, so had to navigate that world. But once I did I honestly never looked back. My college (Somerville) was and is amazing, and the city will always be magical to me. I left to go to the US straight after but came back when I got a job at Oxford University Press – working in an office I had been able to see from my room at Somerville – so the pull to return was clearly there.
Did you have any favourite haunts around the city?
I love those quiet, less-trodden paths you’ll find dotted around Oxford – the alleyways behind colleges, the quiet cemeteries tucked away from a busy road, or the leaf-smothered paths along the canal. I love the Botanic Garden too of course, and University Parks. I could go on! But I need to establish some new haunts as well as returning to new ones. I reckon I really only know 10% of this city – it’s like an infinite Russian doll where one discovery leads to a new one.
You studied languages at Oxford, and at Princeton, how key has speaking multiple languages been for your career?
I wish I could use my French and German more on an everyday level – it’s a strange thing, but whenever I hear German in particular it feels like I’ve come home. But from a lexicographical (there’s a word!) point of view, they’ve been invaluable. Knowing French gives you a gateway onto Latin, a language which informs a vast swathe of our language. And English is essentially a Germanic tongue thanks to the Angles and Saxons who came over from northern Germany, which means German is a fantastic bedrock of English vocabulary too.
Are you currently learning any more languages?
I wish I had more time! I look on Rachel Riley’s new proficiency in Russian with envy – she’s managed to learn it within a couple of years and it’s beautiful to listen to.
Do you learn more words from your children than they do from you?
Both my daughters switch off whenever I try to tell them about the origin of a word they’ve just used – I can’t understand why they aren’t fascinated by the secret lives behind the words we use every day, until I realise that this is their mother talking, and who wants to be taught by their mum? As for their language, I try to keep up as much as I can but at some point I know I’ll fall behind. For now, I secretly love my youngest getting things wrong – I’ll never correct her calling of Huddersfield Town AFC ‘Hugglesfield’, for example, and remember the time she asked whether a dead chick on the path had ‘gone to Devon’.
Not only do you run Dictionary Corner on Countdown, but you run it when comedy panel show 8 Out of 10 Cats takes over for 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, how out of your comfort zone did that take you at first?
Not as much as I expected, but the trickiest thing was trying to be funny when I was up against six comedians who can capture the audience in an instant. And Jimmy [Carr, presenter] was very respectful at first, which felt at odds with his attitude towards the rest of the gang. Now, of course, he couldn’t be ruder towards me, and I get a lot of sympathy from the audience, but I honestly prefer that – it makes me feel part of the team. I just need to get a lot better at my comebacks!
What’s Jimmy Carr like off set?
He’s hugely professional and genuinely cares that people feel at ease. If ever we get a new comedian on the show, he will go out of his way to check they felt comfortable and had a good time. Off set, he’s pretty private like me, which I respect, with lots of passions outside of work, which isn’t easy when he works as much as he does.
Your upcoming show The Secret Life of Words will feature an exploration into words from different time periods as well as your experience on Countdown. What do you want audiences to take away?
A renewed sense of just how flippercanorious (fantastic) our language can be, and with a few facts that will continue to tickle them for years to come. I talk about my favourite etymologies (for example, that ‘licking something into shape’ began with the ancient belief that bear cubs are born as formless blobs, and needed to be licked into bear shape by their mothers), some of the funniest linguistic errors, and why the history of swearing is so fascinating (and why, from time to time, we really need to turn the air blue).
Scurryfunge, an old US dialect verb describing the mad attempt to tidy up that we all make just before visitors arrive.
Most overused word/expression?
Thoughts on online dictionaries?
I love them – their memory is vast and they are so quick to use. Spellcheckers are another matter…
What are you reading at the moment?
Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane. It’s as compelling as it is haunting.
Susie Dent: The Secret Life of Words is at The Theatre Chipping Norton 9 October, 7.45pm