Countdown must rank as one of TV’s big successes, having been the first ever programme on Channel 4 back in 1982 and still broadcasting today. Over the years the format and the cast of characters have changed very little, and in 2012 8 Out of 10 Cats does Countdown was added to the schedules. Sitting in Dictionary Corner since 1992 (which is a jolly long time, if you think about it) has been lexicographer and etymologist Susie Dent, and she brought her The Secret Life of Words show to the Royal and Derngate last week.
Anyone who knows me IRL (as the young people of today like to say) will know that I am fascinated by the derivation of words. Get me drunk and I will tell you about the fourteen ways of making a new word in the English Language without borrowing from foreign languages – I always was a wow at parties. Thus, I was keen to book for this show, as clearly were a large number of the good burghers of Northampton as there wasn’t a spare seat in the house.
Ms Dent takes us on a very entertaining linguistic lecture tour of her favourite aspects of the English language. It’s the most flexible and useful language in the world, which is why it is so prominent internationally. But it’s hard for foreign people to learn, with our unpredictable pronunciations (consider: though, through, cough, bough, enough) and our word order, which is instinctive to native speakers but has to be taught to students. That quick brown fox who jumps over the lazy dog is never a brown quick fox, even though in reality it’s the identical four-legged fiend. When Hylda Baker answered the phone in her sitcom Not on Your Nellie she would always say “This is the Old Brown Cow speaking” rather than the other way around.
So there’s loads of material for Susie Dent with which to amuse and educate us. One of her examples of folk etymology is forlorn hope (always one of my favourite derivations) – originally the Dutch Boer verloren hoop, the sacrificial troop of soldiers sent out in the front to get killed whilst the war was won by the backroom boys. New to me, and totally delightful, was the derivation of to “steal one’s thunder” – the annoyed retort of a theatre director in the early 18th century who had discovered that the next production in the same theatre had stolen his newly invented thunder-sound-making-machine used in his previous, less successful, play.
Ms Dent has a very relaxed and comfortable style; there’s little sense of academia in her presentation, it’s much more about the fun of language and things to spot for yourself. Perhaps surprisingly, she likes and encourages Americanisms; and above all recognises that language is a constantly evolving entity and the one thing you cannot do (like Samuel Johnson attempted in his dictionary) is to tie it down for all eternity. She doesn’t shy away from swear words; in fact we learn that the majority of swear words that we use today that concern sex were actually perfectly decent words century ago, because the big no-no in those days was profanity. There’s quite a lengthy exposé in the show about just how useful and flexible f*ck is as a go-to word for all sorts of situations, so don’t take the youngsters!
In an unofficial survey, we were all asked to confirm whether we said mischievous or mischievious; being well-educated types by far the majority plumped for the former, which surprised Ms Dent as her belief is that in twenty years’ time the latter will be the standard pronunciation, as we try to associate it with the word devious. On the pronunciation of scones and scones (you’ll know which is your personal default) we were pretty evenly split. And some audience members were still ridiculing each other on the way out at the end of the show for getting it wrong. (It’s scones, of course.)
The last fifteen minutes or so consist of a Q&A session where members of the audience can ask for Susie’s opinion on burning issues of grammar and etymology. We learned that she has no time for the old adage I before E except after C, and also that she likes one of my favourite forms of new-word-making, metanalysis, where a letter transfers from one word to another to create a new word, such as when a napperon became an apron, a norange became an orange and so on. Tawdry is my favourite example of this.* There was a terrifically phrased question about whether you should say less or fewer, which Susie rather glossed over as being largely unimportant. Surely it’s simply a question of singular and plural nouns? Less stuff but fewer things! No one mentioned split infinitives – I wish I’d asked about that one now, as I’m a stickler for tradition in that department. Save it for another day.
A fascinating evening of wordplay which informed and entertained. If she’s coming to a theatre near you, I’d definitely recommend it!
*Centuries ago, poor people used to buy their clothes from the equivalent of a church bring-and-buy sale in Ely. The church was dedicated to…? St Audrey, naturally!