A lady who needs absolutely no introduction, Susie Dent has been the Queen of Countdown’s Dictionary Corner for over 30 years.
With more than 5,000 episodes having aired since she started in 1992, she is without question the UK’s most famous lexicographer-cum-TV personality, bringing the joy of words into households across the country on an almost daily basis.
Currently in the throes of a spoken word tour, Susie is serving up her passion for language and etymology to theatre crowds throughout the land, and on June 22, she is bringing said passion to the Ludlow Fringe.
“The show is called The Secret Lives of Words,” she says. “It’s a bit of a romp through my favourite word origins, my favourite word stories, and silly word mistakes that crop up all the time – some from the past, some more modern ones. There’s a little guide to swearing. That’s a very hot topic – it’s a fascinating subject, where our swear words come from and how things have shifted over the centuries. I also take a look at American English and why people hate it, and then I have a word surgery bit at the end. At my shows I usually have a little box in the foyer and at the interval people can put in any question they like – anything from ‘is Jimmy Carr’s laugh real?’ to ‘why do flammable and inflammable mean the same thing?’ And I try to answer as many as I can.”
Famous for her extraordinary knowledge of the English language, its hard to imagine Susie Dent ever being stumped by a query thrown at her. But according to the Oxford and Princeton alumnus, it happens more often than you would think.
“Oh yeah, all the time! And also I’m often beaten on Countdown, either by contestants – some of whom, as you’ll know, are amazing – or I’ll get Tweets from people saying ‘you missed an eight there’. I quite like that because it’s still a very human show and I think it’s really nice for viewers that they can beat us.
“For these questions at the end of my live show, I sometimes don’t have the answer at all, but I always will go away and look it up or I’ll tell a story that’s kind of related to that. That’s the joy – even though I live with dictionaries each and every day of my life, I will never know everything in them. There will never be a day when I won’t be surprised by something.”
Lexicography – the art of compiling dictionaries – is a fascinating yet unusual profession, and one that most people had probably never paid thought to until Susie put it on the map. So what was it that drew her to this curious line of work?
“I wish I had the answer to this,” she says. “It’s almost like this mystical pull that I have towards words that I can’t fully explain. As I discuss in the show, one of my earliest memories is sitting in the bath when I was little, before I could read or write, and just staring at bottles on the edge of the bath – bubble bath or shampoo bottles – and just noticing these kind of swirling, exotic characters on the back and thinking, ‘I want to know what those are’. They must have been the most boring ingredients ever, really! But for me they were magical, and then as soon as I could read we’d go on these family trips and I would sit in the back of the car completely lost in a vocabulary book. Only at that time it was a French and German vocabulary book – they were my first loves, foreign languages. And later on, when I was working at Oxford University Press (OUP), I obviously then began to be really interested in English lexicography and English etymology, so I kind of came into English a lot later. But yeah, I wish I could explain to you what it is, but I’m just so lucky that words found me, because that’s how it feels.”
Alongside her work at OUP, Susie’s career came to be hallmarked by what has perhaps become Britain’s most beloved stalwart of a television series, ever. After three decades on Channel 4’s Countdown, she has certainly built up her fair share of fond memories.
“There’s scarcely a programme that goes by when a word doesn’t come up that somehow reminds me of Richard Whiteley,” she reflects. “He really relished certain words – you could see his body language change when ‘leotard’ came up, for example. He’d always tell us that it was named after Jules Léotard who was a French trapeze artist – he’d always throw that in. There are lots of those that have me remembering him sort of jiggling about in his seat with that mischievous smile of his – lots of happy memories from those. There was also his ‘Gotcha’ with Noel Edmonds where he was set up and was totally bamboozled, and I don’t think he clicked until right at the last moment. For two fake contestants on the show, we had ‘OMETHINGS’ come up on the board, and neither of the contestants got ‘SOMETHING’, and Richard was just kind of looking at them going, ‘did you honestly not see that?’. It just got more and more surreal and finally Noel Edmonds popped out from behind the set – it was very silly.
“More recently, there are just so many moments. I’m very familiar with the standard dictionary, whereas Rachel Riley knows the urban dictionary very well. And now I suspect current host Colin Murray also knows the urban dictionary very well. Quite often there’s a completely different meaning to a word that’s come up on Countdown which I’ll be absolutely unaware of, and I’ll be reading out the standard dictionary definition but can see out of the corner of my eye that Rachael is bent over double with laughter because I’ve missed the rude meaning!
“I remember my 25th anniversary as well, where Colin actually was a guest that day, and he had just written this lovely poem. And I got a letter from Arsène Wenger who is a big hero of mine. Honestly, I know people find it quite hard to believe, but I’m never bored by Countdown. I always feel the rush when the clock starts ticking down because it’s a new game every time, and I’m just so lucky to still be there.”
In more recent years however, Susie has been part of quite a different spin on the Channel 4 treasure. Hosted by Jimmy Carr, 8 out of 10 Cats Does Countdown places panel show comedians in the realm of the show’s traditional format, with naturally hilarious results. Both Susie and colleague Rachel Riley assume their regular roles, but of course the experience is somewhat different. “It was quite a ride at the beginning,” said Susie. “I think I wasn’t completely sure what was expected of me and I, stupidly, just assumed that I was there to be funny as well. But I’m only ever genuinely funny by mistake! So I think I tried a bit too hard at the beginning to be a comedian, and then I realised quite quickly that actually, I’m either there to be Jimmy’s stooge or just to do what I do.
“We have a great time. Each show goes on for hours. Although it’s cut down for telly to an hour, each show is recorded for about two and a half hours so you get a lot more comedy and the audience get all this silliness for a very long time.”
Running from June 17 to July 2, this year’s Ludlow Fringe is also set to feature Dame Judi Dench and Jasper Carrott.
With the star herself excited to take the stage, Susie’s show will in fact be her first performance in Shropshire. “I’m really looking forward to this and that’s one of the joys of touring – that you get to go to places that you don’t know very well,” she said. “And Shropshire, I think because – don’t laugh – I’ve studied Housman, the poet, at school, I’ve always had this wonderfully romantic notion of Shropshire and it’s always been fixed in my imagination as this very sort of magical, special, green place. So I can’t wait. I have been to Ludlow before, but very, very fleetingly, and I haven’t had enough time to explore it so I’m really looking forward to this.”
Before we were forced to part ways, it was impossible to resist asking the legendary Susie for a few of those favourite words that may even make an appearance in the show. As it turns out, there are three lost gems that she would particularly love to see return to use.
“One is ‘apricity’, which is ‘the joy of the sun on a winter’s day’ – when it’s freezing cold and you just relish that warmth on your back. That’s apricity, which is just gorgeous and it’s only got one record in the Oxford English Dictionary and then it just disappeared.
“There’s another one. You know how we always like to talk about ‘schadenfreude’ – happiness in someone else’s displeasure or pain? There’s a kind of opposite to that which is ‘confelicity’, which is ‘joy in other people’s happiness’ – that kind of altruistic happiness for someone else, when you’ve got no agenda and you’re not earning anything from it. I love that one.
“One of my favourite discoveries, however, was a Yorkshire word, ‘crambazzled’, which is ‘to be prematurely aged from excess drinking’.”
We’re sure the crowd at Ludlow will be keen to raise a glass to these, and many more.
For more information visit www.ludlowfringe.co.uk