10 minutes with Countdown’s Susie Dent
- Credit: John Lawrence
The queen of Dictionary Corner will be heading to Guildford Book Festival this October to talk about her new book, Word Perfect
You’ve written a number of books on ‘words’ but your newest feels like a ‘bible’ for anyone who has even a vague interest in etymology. Was it something you’d always wanted to do and has it been a long time in the making?
In many ways it’s been a lifetime in the making! I’ve always been a word hoarder, collecting odds and ends of language that caught my eye. Even when I was little, I was far more interested in a vocabulary book than a new pair of jeans – and things haven’t changed much since! Word Perfect has allowed me to gather some of my absolute favourite etymologies – as well as some of the forgotten words from the past that we really ought to bring back. It was a joy to bring them all together.
Do you have a favourite entry?
I think many of us have become a bit crambazzled in the last few months – good old Yorkshire dialect for looking prematurely aged from excess drinking. Other favourites of mine include the story of ‘stealing someone’s thunder’, which involved the pinching of a thunder-making machine by one 18th-century theatrical company from another. I also love ‘licking something into shape’, which was born from the medieval belief that bear cubs are born formless, and have to be licked into bear shape by their mums. As for words from the past: how did we ever do without ‘mumpsimus’: a 16th-century term for someone who insists that they are right, despite clear evidence that they are wrong? We all know at least one mumpsimus.
What started your love affair with words?
I’m not sure I know what the catalyst was, as it feels like I’ve had this passion all my life. One of my earliest memories is staring at the exotic, swirling characters on a shampoo bottle and marvelling at the shape of the letters. My first loves were actually French and German, which I went on to study at university. I only really came to a love of English etymology a little later, when working at Oxford University Press. Now I can’t get enough of the stories and adventures behind even the most ordinary of words.
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You’ve been on Countdown now for over 20 years – can you ever imagine a world without it?
No! I am so lucky to have found a job that I love just as much as the day I started. When I hear the ticking of the Countdown clock, I can feel the adrenaline kicking in all over again. And, of course, now I have the comedy version, 8 out of 10 Cats does Countdown, to enjoy too.
Has the popularity of the spin-off show been a surprise?
In some ways yes, but then I know how much I laugh myself during the making of each show, so it’s no surprise that our viewers feel the same. It began as a mash-up evening on C4, which swapped presenters around from different shows – thankfully this one stuck. It’s amazing too to see how even this audience is trying to compete on the words and numbers round, while laughing at the same time.
What has it been like filming without an audience?
Obviously we all miss the rapport of the Countdown audience, many of whom have been coming for years. And I miss seeing them with pen and paper trying to get the longest word they can from each letter selection, or to crack the numbers round. But ITV Productions have been outstanding in the way they’ve made the studio as safe as humanly possible – and that’s what really matters at the moment.
What’s it like working with Gyles Brandreth on your award-winning podcast Something Rhymes with Purple?
The podcast was my sanctuary during lockdown – we were able to do it with home-recording equipment, and somehow it felt more intimate making the programme that way. I also love the format of a podcast – it feels like a chat between friends – and I include the lovely Purple listeners here too. Gyles said to me ‘I think this is the most ‘you’ thing you’ve ever done’ – and I think he might be right.
What are you favourite memories of growing up in Surrey?
I adored school – as you would expect given that I was a geek long before it became fashionable! But I also loved the freedom to set off on my bike, fish for tadpoles in the local ford, or make a den in the woods. I wish my children could have the same.
Can you sum up what the county means to you in three words?
Green; friends; home.
Word Perfect, Etymological Entertainment for Every Day of the Year by Susie Dent is publised in hardback by John Murray Publishers, on October 1. RRP £14.99.
Susie will be appearing at Guildford Book Festival on Monday, October 5. For more information and tickets visit guildfordbookfestival.co.uk.