Susie Dent’s emotional dictionary: ‘There are a few Irish words in there, all wrapped up in longing and melancholy and yearning’

Susie Dent’s emotional dictionary: ‘There are a few Irish words in there, all wrapped up in longing and melancholy and yearning’

Susie Dent is feeling depooperit. The lexicographer and Dictionary Corner stalwart has just finished filming for the 40th anniversary of Channel 4′s Countdown, and is understandably ramfeezled, dumfungled and wabbit. (You guessed it: exhausted). She’s also feeling betwittered; nothing to do with her million-plus Twitter followers, but rather “in a twitter”, all “aflutter”, or “overcome with pleasing excitement”. This is because her latest book, An Emotional Dictionary: Real Words for How You Feel from Angst to Zwodder, is due to be published this month.

“I’m quite nervous about the book coming out, as I always am,” she says, when we speak over the phone. “But I’m also excited. So betwittered is a lovely old word.”

From betwittered to hyppytyynytyydytys (the pleasure of dropping into an armchair) to age-otori (distress after a bad haircut), the book gathers unusual and interesting words, as well as “the big ones we all know” (jealousy, greed, anger, angst), that express how we feel. According to its introduction, “those who draw on a wider range of vocabulary to express their emotions are far more able to cope with them”.

Dent says the book is “idiosyncratic” rather than exhaustive. “I deliberately called it an emotional dictionary rather than the emotional dictionary, because it’s quite subjective. These are words that sang to me for some reason.”

Dent (57) is as affable in conversation as she seems on screen. The meanings and etymology of even the most obscure words come naturally to her (perhaps unsurprisingly, one of her “favourite pastimes” is reading the dictionary), but she never comes across as arrogant, only passionate.

She’s not sure where this passion for words came from, but she remembers studying the backs of shampoo and ketchup bottles as a child, before she could even read. “I was determined to try and decode them somehow,” she says. “For me, what must have been the most boring ingredients in the world were just marvellous.”

She also mentions her uncle, Peter Dent, a poet. “I think it would be hard to find anything of his now, but for me it was really special the fact that he wrote these wonderful poems. And my dad was a great reader. So I think those were the ones that gave me that love of language.”

Dent studied modern languages at Oxford before completing a master’s in German at Princeton. Her first appearance on Countdown was in 1992. She was working as a lexicographer for Oxford University Press, who had an arrangement with Channel 4 to provide “word referees” for the show. Footage of Dent on her debut, looking nervous beside the luxuriously coiffed actor Rula Lenska, can be found on YouTube.

Thirty years later, a more experienced Dent is Countdown’s longest-standing cast member, having outlasted the likes of Carol Vordeman, Des Lynam, Des O’Connor, Jeff Stelling, Nick Hewer, Anne Robinson, and, of course, the late Richard Whiteley.

“I think some of my favourite [Countdown] memories involve Richard Whiteley,” she says. “He was there when I joined, right from the beginning. He had that magical relationship with Carol – one of the best double acts in the business, really. I loved his relish of words, and the way he would fling himself back in the chair when one of his favourite words came up, which might be leotard, which is a Countdown favourite, or moonset, which he loved as well.”

These days Dent shares the screen with host Colin Murray, number-wizard Rachel Riley and an ever-changing rota of contestants and Dictionary Corner guests. The likes of Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Jo Brand, Jerry Springer and many more have joined her in her linguistic corner, helping to find the longest possible words from the nine-letter scramble.

But what’s her secret to producing winning words in 30 seconds? Does the dictionary help?

“It helps in that I can look up a word that a contestant might offer. I can try and pre-empt their suggestion,” she says. “But it doesn’t help you obviously unscramble nine letters.”

Indeed, some were suspicious of the move from printed dictionary to online one for this reason.

“I think a lot of people thought that I have some sort of anagram finder, but I don’t at all,” Dent laughs. “The sole reason for doing that is because printed dictionaries nowadays are on a much lower reprint cycle, because most of us are turning to online dictionaries, whereas the Oxford Dictionary online is updated regularly. And what we didn’t want is for a contestant to offer a word that has been in currency, even for a year, and for it not to be in the dictionary.”

As for finding the best words, she humbly concedes: “I don’t always beat the contestant, I have to say. I am regularly beaten by some of the really good contestants. And I love that. I also get tweets from people saying ‘oh, you missed this’, and I really love that too,because there’s the sense that we’re all playing it together. There’s also the fact that I’ve been doing this for years, and it’s a muscle.”

When Dent isn’t flexing her lexical muscle on Countdown, she’s filming for its late-night comedic alter-ego, 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, or recording her podcast, Something Rhymes With Purple, with Dictionary Corner regular Gyles Brandreth. You may not have known you were interested in the etymological history of water vessels or weaponry before listening, but five minutes in you’ll be hypnotised.

“The podcast was absolutely my oasis during lockdown, because it was the one piece of work I had,” says Dent. “I was with my girls [daughters Lucy and Thea] at home, but I got to talk to Gyles on the screen, so it was something I really looked forward to.”

Those gruelling months of lockdown were also what prompted her to write a book focused on emotion. “After the years we’ve had, it just seemed like a good one to tackle, because I think so many of us went through so many different emotions. I mean, rollercoaster is kind of overused, but it does kind of feel that way. I just wanted, particularly during lockdown, to find words that would somehow express how I was feeling.”

Dent has drawn on history (the Oxford English Dictionary’s tool for finding historical synonyms was particularly useful) and a wide variety of languages to compile her emotional dictionary.

“There are a few Irish words in there, which are all kind of wrapped up in longing and melancholy and yearning,” she says. Indeed, there’s beochaoineadh, a lament for the living lost; aduantas, a feeling of unease at being in new surroundings; iarmhaireacht, the loneliness felt at dawn (Manchán Magan’s Thirty-Two Words For Field is acknowledged in the entry for this), and more.

But Irish words aren’t the only melancholic words in there. A great many “feeling” words lean towards the negative.

“I always find it so sad that positive words disappear, but negative ones remain,” Dent says. She gives the example of the word respair: “It’s recovering from despair, which is what’s so badly needed at the moment.” But there’s only one recorded entry of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Is there a reason why negative words outlive positive ones?

“I don’t know if we are all pessimists at heart,” she says. “Certainly, if you look at English, and I don’t know if it’s the same with Irish as well – I think it’s true in German – there’s an instinct to gossip. And when you gossip about people usually it’s in the negative. A lot of regional language collects around things like ugly or annoying or, if you look at the language of the past, people being bandy-legged or knock-kneed, or just the weird side of life.”

Lost positives of words like disgruntled, unkempt, unwieldy and so on are something of a fixation for Dent. “All the positive versions of those [apart from disgruntled] were around first,” she says. “You could be wieldy, you could be kempt, you could be couth, you could be full of gorm as well as gormless. But those just ebbed away and we held on to the negative. I’ve been talking for years about how to bring back all the positive words.”

Of course Dent knows as well as anyone that trying to control language is, in the words of Samuel Johnson, “as futile as lashing the wind”.

“Language will always elude us. It will always be one step ahead of us. But that’s how it should be,” she says. “It’s always responding to us and what our needs are.”

It would be easy to talk for hours about language and its slippery nature, but Dent has another interview to get to. And along with book promotion she’s getting ready for a podcast tour, and a run of her own shows. If she’s not careful, she might risk becoming “forswunk” (worn out from too much work).

“I have a fantasy of blacking out four weeks in my diary and then doing absolutely nothing,” she says. “In fact, we need a name for this, but there is a word in German: Eilkrankheit.” (This translates as “hurry sickness”.)

“It’s that fact that you are so busy all the time it becomes like an infection that you can’t stop. I do find that when I do finally pause, if I do that for any extended period of time I feel absolutely terrible. My body and my mind are clearly not used to stopping, and I think I need to train that muscle.”

An Emotional Dictionary: Real Words for How You Feel, from Angst to Zwodder, by Susie Dent, is published by John Murray

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