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Susie Dent on her new show The Secret Lives of Words

Susie will be appearing at Watford Palace Theatre this September. Photo John Lawrence
Susie will be appearing at Watford Palace Theatre this September. Photo John Lawrence

Countdown's Susie Dent on the joy of words and her new show at Watford Palace Theatre

Where does your love of words come from?

One of my earliest memories is of sitting in the bath as a toddler marvelling at shampoo bottles and the exotic, swirling writing on them. I've been drawn to words ever since. I'm lucky to be working with something that genuinely excites me every day, as both a lexicographer – someone who writes or works with dictionaries and as an etymologist who is like a word detective, hunting for clues on the origins of words.

You have appeared on Channel 4's Countdown and also 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, what have been your most memorable moments?

I'm often asked which show I prefer working on - Countdown or comedy Catsdown (my shorthand). It's an impossible one to answer. Countdown I've been doing for over thirty years - it's my second home. If had to pick my Countdown favourite I'd go for the time when Noel Edmonds did a Gotcha on Richard Whiteley, who failed to recognise he was being set up even when the letters OMETHINGS came up on board and the contestants (both actors) pretended not to spot the nine-letter word! As for Catsdown, it would have to be Sean Lock's amazing mascots, from his book The Tiger that Came for a Pint to his crooner's album Nan That's What I Call Music. We all miss Sean hugely.

Can you tell us something about yourself that not many people know?

I'm terrible at Scrabble! People expect me to be amazing at it but I've avoided it for 30 years because its rules and dictionary are so different to Countdown. Colin Murray still boasts about how he trounced me when we played.

What is your favourite (or most hated) words and why?

Once upon a time I would immediately answer 'moist' - like the rest of the nation - but I think I've moved on from the M word now I do however still hate 'gusset', along with 'flange' and 'spigot' - with all of these it's about the sound, and the mental associations that go with them.

You are touring with The Secret Lives of Words, what can we expect?

The show is a celebration of our eccentric, gnarly, but utterly joyous language. I share my greatest hits when it comes to the origins of words and try to re-introduce some of the best and funniest words in the historical dictionary that somehow went out of fashion. I also look at swearing and American English - two things many of us hate, but are they really so bad? My favourite part of the show though is a Word Surgery segment at the end, where the audience can ask me any burning question about English (or Jimmy Carr's laugh) and I'll attempt to answer it.

Any favourite words from Hertfordshire?

I came across the gloriously bizarre phrase 'a side-pocket for a toad', used for something considered useless! Some of the expressions that our parents and grandparents use transport us straight back home, and I think we should keep this one going.

Susie Dent presents The Secret Lives Of Words is at Watford Palace Theatre on September 10


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