P.Perhaps the world’s most famous lexicographer, Susie Dent is certainly one of the most positive personalities on British television. For 31 years, queen of the dictionary corner on Countdown on Channel 4, she put just as much energy into her books: from her first, the 2003 Language Report for Oxford University Press, to Weird Words (2013), a shameless collection of farts and squelching. . She even finds pleasure in current events, through her regular “word of the day” publications on Twitter. Recent examples include “‘boodlery’ (19th century): unscrupulous behavior in the exercise of public office” and, on the day of Donald Trump’s arrest, “‘mugshot’: the use of ‘mug’ for a face dates back to 18th century drinking. mugs which often represented a grotesque human face…”
We find ourselves in a cafe on a rainy July day, where she is sitting – as usual – in the corner, enthusiastically preparing a second breakfast. She often sits alone in a cafe, she said. “It’s probably illegal to listen as much as I do.” It’s really for linguistic purposes, not for chatting. But you can collect gems.
This fall, Dent will publish two new books full of linguistic gems. The first, Interesting Stories About Curious Words: From Stealing Thunder to Red Herrings, is a book for adults about the strange stories behind some of our most common words and phrases. One of his favorites, “lick into shape,” derives from “the widespread medieval belief that cubs are born shapeless and must be licked by their mothers.” Next up is Roots of Happiness: 100 Words for Joy and Hope, a children’s book with beautiful illustrations by Harriet Hobday, which she calls “the happiest thing I’ve ever written.” Dent is on a mission to revive the “lost positives” of English – words like “feckful,” “couth,” “ruly,” and “full of gorm.” In modern English they only survive in their negative forms, but in olden days we aspired to be ruthless (compassionate) or ept.
“Our kids have been through so much recently,” Dent says of the book. “Their normalcy has been taken away. And I just thought, “Let’s celebrate beauty.” Not just obviously attractive words like “butterfly” and “lovewende” (meaning beloved) – but also those that delight in everyday annoyances, like “thunder: the sudden downpour of large, heavy raindrops that leaves us soaked and dripping in minutes.” She was thrilled to discover that research by psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett showed that having the vocabulary to express feelings of happiness can make us better able to manage our emotions. And if we’re feeling down, knowing there’s a fun word for it — “mubble fubbles” — can at least make us feel less alone.
Like many linguists, Dent is optimistic about linguistic change and believes that children are its standard-bearers. She is excited about the fact that non-native speakers of English around the world now vastly outnumber native speakers, and about the “new Englishes” in their hands and mouths. She is not afraid of AI and does not think that new technologies will destroy the way we speak our language – although this fear is not new. The Victorians were afraid of the postcard, she points out. Their telegram was our “the text is ruining our children”. On the other hand, she does not like the methods that schools have recently been using to teach grammar. “If you say to children: “Do you know the reduplication of ablauts? ”, their eyes would completely glaze over. But if you say to them, “Would you like to play pong ping or have a kit kat?” ”, they understand it instinctively and it becomes very exciting. She has two children and – far from correcting their mistakes – has always loved it when they get their words wrong. “English has always evolved by mistake,” she says. “The example I give is the Jerusalem artichoke, which has nothing to do with Jerusalem and is not even an artichoke. The plant is a heliotrope – it turns towards the sun – but because we couldn’t pronounce the Italian ‘gira sol“, we thought ‘Jerusalem’ would do the trick.”
Apparently Dent has always been this way about words. She was the kind of kid who couldn’t sit at a table without reading the label on the ketchup bottle; then studying German and French at the baccalaureate really put her in the rhythm. She studied modern languages at Oxford University, then German at Princeton – and if you think she’s taken with English etymology, you should see her face when she speaks German. “When I listen to it and speak it, I honestly feel like I’m coming home,” she says, brightening. She thinks it may have been Goethe who compared English to a country garden, French to an ornamental park, and German to a deep, dark forest. “And that’s how I feel. It’s prickly and dense and sometimes quite dark, but I find such joy in it.
After university, Dent worked for a time for Oxford University Press – first on their bilingual dictionaries, then on English dictionaries, where his interest in etymology developed. When her boss told her that Channel 4 was looking for an expert for Countdown, she felt obliged to step in; but three decades later, it’s his second home. When she’s not in the studio, touring theaters, or recording her podcast with Gyles Brandreth, “I spend a lot of my time looking at the virtual pages of the OED, and it’s probably where I’m happiest.”
For Dent, words matter. “Not because of 18th-century Latin rules about split infinitives and prepositions, but because the words are joyful and we have such a vast lexicon at our disposal.” So what three happy words would she use to describe herself?
“Oh my God!” she says. And then: “Should they be positive? The first one that came to mind, because she thought of it when she woke up this morning, was “elven.” “This brings us back to the hypothesis that mischievous elves would come out at night and wreak havoc on your hair.” The second, positive found, is “null” – because “I would like to believe that I have an effect”. For the third word, she finally decides to “repair”. Re-hope is the opposite of despair; there is only one entry in the dictionary, and it means to recover from despair. “But I think it also means hoping for better days around the corner. Have new hope and new optimism.
To conclude, we leave the café just as a huge gust of rain falls on the street. “Oh look,” she said, “a clap of thunder!” And she gives a huge smile.