Susie Dent: ‘English has always evolved by mistake’

Perhaps the world’s most famous lexicographer, Susie Dent is certainly one of the most positive people on British TV. For 31 years the queen of dictionary corner on Channel 4’s Countdown, she puts just as much energy into her books: from her first, the 2003 Language Report for Oxford University Press, to Weird Words (2013), an unapologetic compendium of farting and squelching. She even finds the fun in current events, through her regular “word of the day” posts on Twitter. Recent examples include “‘boodlery’ (19th century): unprincipled behaviour in public office”, and, on the day Donald Trump was arrested, “‘mugshot’: the use of ‘mug’ for a face looks back to 18th-century drinking mugs that often represented a grotesque human face … ”

We meet in a cafe on a rainy July day, where she is sitting – as is her habit – in a corner, enthusiastically digging into a second breakfast. She often sits quietly on her own in a coffee shop, she says. “It’s probably against the law to eavesdrop as much as I do. It really is for linguistic purposes, not for gossip. But you can pick up some gems.”

This autumn, Dent will publish two new books full of linguistic jewels. The first, Interesting Stories About Curious Words: From Stealing Thunder to Red Herrings, is a book for adults about the weird stories behind some of our most common words and phrases. One of her favourites, to “lick into shape”, derives from “the widespread medieval belief that bear cubs are born shapeless and have to be licked into shape by their mothers”. The next is Roots of Happiness: 100 Words for Joy and Hope, a book for children with beautiful illustrations by Harriet Hobday, which she calls “the happiest thing I’ve ever written”. Dent is on a mission to revive English’s “lost positives” – words such as “feckful”, “couth”, “ruly” and “full of gorm”. In modern English, they survive only in their negative forms, but once, we aspired to be ruthful (full of compassion) or ept.

“Our kids have been through so much recently,” Dent says of the book. “Their normality has been taken away. And I just thought, ‘Let’s celebrate the beautiful’.” Not just obviously appealing words such as “butterfly” and “lovewende” (meaning beloved) – but those that delight in everyday annoyances, such as “thunderplump: the sudden downpour of fat, heavy raindrops that leaves us drenched and dripping in minutes”. She was excited to find research, by the psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett, that showed having the vocabulary to articulate happy feelings can make us better able to manage our emotions. And if we are feeling down, knowing that there is a fun word for that – the “mubble fubbles” – may at least make us feel less alone.

Dent is drawn to words that delight in everyday annoyances, such as ‘thunderplump: the sudden downpour of fat, heavy raindrops

Like many linguists, Dent is positive about linguistic change, and feels that children are its flagbearers. She’s excited that non-native speakers of English around the world now hugely outnumber native speakers, and about the “new Englishes” in their hands and mouths. She’s not afraid of AI, and doesn’t think new technology is going to destroy the way we speak our language – though that fear is nothing new. Victorians were afraid of the postcard, she points out. Their telegram was our “text speak is ruining our children”. On the other hand, she’s not keen on the methods that schools have recently been made to use to teach grammar. “If you say to kids, ‘Do you know about ablaut reduplication?’, their eyes would just completely glaze over. But if you say to them, ‘Would you like to play a game of pong ping, or have a kat kit?’, they understand that instinctively and it becomes quite exciting.” She has two children and – far from correcting their errors – has always loved it when they get words wrong. “English has always evolved by mistake,” she says. “The example I give is the jerusalem artichoke, which has nothing to do with Jerusalem and is not even an artichoke. The plant is a heliotrope – it turns towards the sun – but because we couldn’t pronounce the Italian ‘gira sol’, we thought ‘Jerusalem’ would do.”

Apparently, Dent has always been this way about words. She was the sort of child who can’t sit at a table without reading the label on the ketchup bottle; then studying German and French at A-level really got her “in the groove”. She did modern languages at Oxford University and then German at Princeton – and if you think she’s blissed out by English etymology, you should see her face when she talks about German. “When I listen to it and speak it, I honestly feel like I’m coming home,” she says, lighting up. She thinks it might have been Goethe who compared English to a country garden, French to an ornamental park and German to a deep, dark forest. “And that’s how it feels to me. It’s thorny and it’s dense and it’s quite dark sometimes, but I just find such joy within it.”

After university, Dent worked for a while for Oxford University Press – first on their bilingual dictionaries and then on English dictionaries, where her interest in etymology grew. When her boss told her that Channel 4 was looking for an expert for Countdown she felt obliged to step up; but three decades later, it’s her second home. When she’s not in the studio, or touring theatres, or recording her podcast with Gyles Brandreth, “a lot of my time is spent looking at the virtual pages of the OED, and that’s probably where I’m happiest”.

For Dent, words matter. “Not because of 18th-century Latin rules about split infinitives and prepositions, but because words are joyful, and we have such a vast lexicon there for the taking.” So, what three joyous words would she use to describe herself?

“Oh my goodness!” she says. And then, “Do they have to be positive?” The first one she comes up with, because she thought of it when she woke up this morning, is “elf-locked”. “It looks back to the supposition that mischievous elves would come out at night and play havoc with your hair.” The second, a rediscovered positive, is “feckful” – because “I’d like to think I have some effect”. For the third word, she eventually decides on “respairing”. Respair is the opposite of despair; it only has one record in the dictionary, and it means to recover from despair. “But I think it also means hoping for better days around the corner. Having fresh hope and optimism.”

Wrapping up, we step outside the cafe just as an enormous squall of rain gusts down the street. “Oh look,” she says, “a thunderplump!” And she breaks into an enormous smile.

Interesting Stories About Curious Words is published by John Murray (£14.99). Roots of Happiness is published by Puffin. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.