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Having a Word

Lexicographer and etymologist Susie Dent is best-known for her many appearances on Channel 4 teatime favourite Countdown. Originally from Woking in Surrey, she has appeared on the show since 1992. Here, she shares her advice on how to inspire an interest in literature and language.

When did your obsession with words begin?
Very early on. One of my first memories is of sitting in the bath trying to decipher the letters on a shampoo bottle, and realising that there were other languages out there as well as my own. I was a geek even then it seems, and loved nothing more than reading vocabulary books in the back of the car on family days out, never wanting to get out at our destination because I had so much more to learn.

What is it about the English language that you find so engaging? I came to my love of English relatively late, having fallen in love with German a long time before. I still love German, but marvel every day at the versatility and richness of English, its ability to soak up influences from other cultures and languages and make them its own, and at the sheer verve and vitality of its vocabulary.

How can parents help develop their children’s interest in literature and language?
This answer won’t surprise you, but it has to be reading. But not just reading stories and novels, wonderful as they are. Almost anything can spark an interest in language – you might see a street sign and wonder where the word ‘pedestrian’ comes from, or disgust your child over dinner with the story of how ‘lasagne’ once meant a ‘chamber pot’. There are so many strange and compelling stories hidden behind the most every day words.

My other strong recommendation, of course, is to learn to love a dictionary. Far from being boring, each one is a sparkling repository of facts and tales, especially if you have one that gives the origin of the words we use. It’s not for nothing that ‘thesaurus’ actually comes from the Greek for ‘treasure’.

What were your three favourite books as a child and why?
Very early on I loved Edward Ardizzone’s stories with his unique style of illustration. My second choice would be Noel Streatfeild’s Thursday’s Child, the story of an orphan and her adventures through life; like many children, I found the idea of being orphaned both tragic and romantic. Finally, as a teenager, I adored (and still do) Henri Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes (translated into English as The Lost Domain). It is the best portrayal I’ve ever known of the twilight world between childhood and adolescence.

What careers are available to those who choose to study English language and literature?
I think a love of English in all its forms is a gateway to almost anything. Through its lens we can learn about so many subjects – our history, for example, because every word bears the footprint of the culture and time that shaped it, or geography, art, and the technical skills of linguistics. It has it all and can be a springboard to many careers. More specifically, I can thoroughly recommend lexicography.

You’ve made more than 2,500 appearances on Countdown – why do you think the show is so successful?
It’s all about the format and always has been. It’s a game that everyone can join in with – each player, including the viewer at home, has the same 30 seconds to come up with their longest word or a maths calculation. You only have to look at the studio audience with their pads and pens to know how addictive it can be. And that goes for those watching 8 out of 10 Cats Does Countdown too.

What’s your current favourite snippet of etymology (the origin of words)?
One of my enduring favourites has to be the link between grammar and glamour, proving that there has always been a mystery attached to words. The special arts of reading and writing were once associated with alchemy and magic, and the learning of ‘grammar’ included an education in the occult sciences. Eventually, ‘grammar’ covered only the linguistic side of things, while the word ‘glamour’ embraced the magical elements. I think it’s time we adopted the word ‘grammarous’.

Susie’s latest book is Dent’s Modern Tribes: The Secret Languages of Britain, £14.99

Susie Dent - photo by Alan StruttModern Tribes by Susie Dent