In Dictionary Corner with Countdown’s Susie Dent, the ‘dominatrix’ of words

The Dictionary Corner presenter reveals how Eight out of Ten Cats Does Countdown host Jimmy Carr has helped her show her true colours: "I’m not as blushing or demure as people might think"

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Susie Dent was five years old when she discovered her love of words, reading the labels on shampoo bottles at bath time. “I noticed that the ingredients were written in different languages and I started working out which words corresponded to which. I was fascinated by the shape of words even before I knew what they meant,” she says.

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By the age of eight, the back of the family car became her seat of learning. “Instead of taking a toy or a fiction book on a long journey, I would take German and French vocabulary books, and I would set myself targets of learning a certain number before we reached our destination. The longer the journey, the happier I was.”

Fast-forward eight years to convent school and coveted sixth-form roles. “I so desperately wanted to be house captain or head of some sport or other. Finally it got to chief librarian, and it came to me. It was clearly the geekiest, nerdiest role on the list and I remember feeling mortified – but secretly quite happy.”

Today, with a degree in modern languages from Oxford and a masters in German from Princeton University in the US, Dent is best known for Channel 4’s Countdown and its bawdier sibling Eight Out of Ten Cats Does Countdown. She’s the mistress of words, though host Jimmy Carr would probably say “dominatrix”.

Dent says: “When the show first started, Jimmy was very respectful and I didn’t really feel part of it. But now he’s making me out to be some kind of sex addict or, you know, really into bondage or whatever. And I much prefer that. I’m not a brazen extrovert, but I’m not as blushing or demure as people might think. It’s about fitting in – being part of the tribe.”

How we fit in through our use of exclusive workplace language is the theme of her new book, Dent’s Modern Tribes: The Secret Languages of Britain. The 51-year-old mum of two girls doesn’t fit the “tribe” her early years might have suggested. She’s erudite, but not highbrow. She loves English, but embraces Americanisms. She purrs over words and their origins, but prefers to read aloud in German. Above all, if she ever had an inner pedant, it’s now firmly banished.

“The one thing – apart from assumptions about German – that I have to challenge frequently is people assuming that lexicographers are fierce protectors of the language when in fact our job is not to put a lid on it. Samuel Johnson, in his dictionary, set out to freeze language, to somehow lock in its purity. But even he realised that you can’t capture a language, you can’t enchain it. As he put it, ‘You might as well lash the wind.’”

For Dent, allowing language to evolve means welcoming words and phrases from across the Atlantic. “I know people are going to hate me for this, but I love Americanisms. First of all, a great percentage of Americanisms were actually ours to begin with. They took them on, and we lost them, and now we see them as some kind of travesty, but actually, Shakespeare used ‘gotten’. Stiff upper lip, on the other hand, was first used in America. I think we should remember that English has hoovered up words from every tongue it’s ever encountered.”

There’s a rhythm and melody to her voice when she’s in full flow. Two traits, surely, that are missing from spoken German? Dent frowns. “German has always felt the language that I come back to. It’s given a very hard time by most people for being ugly and guttural. In fact, it’s one of the most melodic, lyrical languages around. And German literature is amazing. It’s just a treasury for me.”

Though dent isn’t a Boudicca-style words warrior, some pronunciations and words still rankle. “People saying misschee-vee-ous instead of miss-chiv-us offends me for some reason, and I don’t like bulbous and scrofula [a form of TB].” On the flip side, today’s favourite word is flippercanorious, meaning fantastic.

The adult Dent wears her nerdishness a little more lightly than her schoolgirl former self. Until, that is, I ask which book she’d want to be marooned on a desert island with. “The Oxford English Dictionary without a doubt,” comes the unerring reply. “I consult it every single day. Every word is a story in itself, plus you discover lots of gems that we ought to use more often because they are so gorgeous.” All of which proves: you can take the girl out of class, but you can’t take class out of the girl… 

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Dent’s Modern Tribes by Susie Dent is available now