How Countdown's Susie Dent is using Twitter to bring old words back to the fore
For anyone who wants to make the most of the sunshine, Susie Dent may just have the answer you’re looking for.
Yes, the resident expert from Countdown’s dictionary corner has a way – and a word – to allow you to bunk off.
Symposium and its etymology is one of the recent words Dent has shared with her 275,000 Twitter followers, each one a morsel to delight her fans.
“They are almost always prompted by what I’m doing or feeling at that moment,” Dent told Press Association.
“I might talk about having a fit of the ‘mubblefubbles’ on a Monday morning (a.k.a feelings of despondency that bring about ‘clinomania’: an overwhelming desire to lie down); or tweet the word ‘scurryfunge’ just before visiting family is about to descend (otherwise known as madly rushing around the house in a frenzied attempt to tidy up).
“Political events have inspired quite a few too – e.g. a ‘quockerwodger’ is a puppet whose strings are entirely controlled by someone else, while a ‘throttlebottom’: a bumbling, rather inept person in public office.”
All of this makes Dent’s Twitter feed a fascinating follow offering a glimpse into her life as well as a lexical delight, a smattering of politics without being political.
Dent has been a Countdown regular since 1992 when the job of solving the anagrams and besting the contestants was split between a roster of experts.
For more than 20 years she has been the only lexicographer on air, sharing her desk with a range of celebrities.
She has also made the move to the evening version 8 Out Of 10 Cats (Does Countdown) with numbers whizz Rachel Riley, where she spars with host Jimmy Carr.
Oxford educated Dent, also a published author, is well aware people expect her to use obscure vocab to make a point. And relish asking her wordy conundrums of their own.
“Quite often people ask me ‘Is there a word for….’ and go on to highlight a gap in our language that we need to fill,” she said.
“We don’t yet, for example, have a word for pretending not to notice someone spitting on us when they’re talking, or for the compulsion to keep scrolling through Twitter even when you became fed up with it an hour ago. Both of these were questions sent in by my followers.
“Sometimes I ask for help myself – we really need, for example, a word for the reassurance and praise we give our hairdresser even when the reflection looking back at us is making us die a little inside. Someone came up with ‘shamproval’, which I loved.”
But just as new words are pouring into English – terms like mansplaining for instance – it’s important we look into the archive too, believes Dent.
“I’m a big believer in change and embrace the fact that English is probably the fastest-moving language in the world. But that doesn’t mean we should neglect the offerings of the past – a vast treasury of riches is dwindling away as the new contenders stream in, and I try to do my bit to celebrate it.”
Among her favourites are:
“I like to introduce a few lost gems when I can to fellow word-lovers, and would genuinely love some of them to make a comeback.
“Why try to describe your annoyance with the person in your family/office who is perpetually cheery when you can just call them a gigglemug?”
And it seems her followers are having a grand time trying to work Dent’s old words into conversations.
“New words can spread like wildfire thanks to social media – you only have to look at ‘mansplaining’ and ‘milkshake duck’ to see language evolution at work – so why not old ones too?
“Someone came up to me the other day and told me that their family now regularly talk about hurkle-durkling; it made me ridiculously happy.”
It all goes to prove that social media is a good thing for language rather than it spiralling downwards, argues Dent, a point in she makes in her 2016 book Dent’s Modern Tribes.
“Such concerns about dumbing down are nothing new – our parents and grandparents worried about the telegram and the postcard. In fact, studies today show the exact opposite, and that far from becoming a bland and monolithic language in which everyone uses the same few words, English is enriched by these new media.
“New tribal vocabularies continue to emerge, as each group – from Facebookers and tweeters to gamers and bloggers – introduce their own ‘codes’ that insiders tune into and recognise.
“I think English is actually in a very good place, and that we should keep trying to convince all the mumpsimuses out there (translation: those who carry on arguing a point even when they’ve been proved wrong).”
Something to discuss at the symposium, at the very least.