Countdown’s Susie Dent on teenage diaries, work being an ‘oasis’, and the joy of really talking
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that if you ask Susie Dent about her exercise regime, you get this answer: “The word muscle comes from the Roman word for little mouse – ‘musculus’ – because when you flex your biceps, it does look a bit like little mice scuttling around under the skin. And I have to say, my muscles were reduced to tiny, tiny mice…”
TV’s most high-profile, and fair to say favourite lexicographer, Dent has been introducing viewers to words and explaining their origins and meanings on Channel 4’s Countdown since 1992. She had been working at Oxford University Press producing dictionaries when she was asked by her boss if she’d like to audition for the show (“nervous” Dent said no twice before being convinced to give it a go).
Chatting to her over the phone, as she explains her motivation for recently getting back into “doing some weights training”, she’s friendly, down-to-earth and calm, and her answers have a gleeful knack of weaving back to the topic of words.
“I had a diary when I was little, it had a little lock and key, I felt like I could write absolutely anything in it,” Dent, now 56, recalls. “I remember the time when I was going through teenage angst, it was just full of melancholy. But it really helped to write things down.
“I bet it would be excruciating to look at those entries now,” she adds with a laugh.
The teenage angst years are thankfully over, but “writing things down is something that’s always helped”, she says, in terms of coping with times of stress and worry. She’s big into the benefits of breathing exercises too.
“I live in my head most of the time, I always have done, and I tend to catastrophise – you just have to ask Rachel [Riley, Dent’s Countdown co-star and good pal] or any of my friends, I do tend to go to the worst conclusion,” Dent admits. “Sometimes it’s just important, really important, to stop, and breathing really works. I’ve found breathing exercises really help to kind of pull my mind away from those catastrophes. It’s so easy to overlook that sort of thing and think, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah…’.
“Distraction for me isn’t very useful,” Dent adds. “Sometimes people say, ‘Try and distract yourself with something else’, but I find what you’re worried about is always there. Distraction might be a temporary sticking-plaster, but you’ll always come back to that problem. So, I think sometimes it helps just acknowledging the fact you are worried and to live with it for a while.”
Getting older is proving helpful too. “Like everyone else really, as I get older, [I’m] definitely realising that so many of the outcomes I fear and dread haven’t happened, and that actually it’s not risky to kind of follow the positive route in your head. I’m getting a bit better at doing that.”
Work is also “an oasis” for Dent, especially writing during the pandemic. “I’m writing my next book, which has been really nice because that’s my normality, as well a podcast I do every week with Gyles [Brandreth].”
The Surrey-born wordsmith, who studied modern languages at Oxford – where she now lives – already has 13 books to her name, including a popular edition of Brewer’s Dictionary Of Phrase & Fable and Susie Dent’s Weird Words for kids. The podcast, Something Rhymes With Purple, won gold in the Best Entertainment category at the 2020 British Podcast Awards.
Like so many things, they had to swap the studio for Zoom to record episodes during lockdown, but Dent didn’t really mind. “For all that I would not like to be involved with eight Zoom meetings every day, the podcast hour that we took onto Zoom was somehow much more direct an intimate than sitting in a studio. It felt much more likely a homely chat, and that was a refuge for me as well.”
Dent has also been learning Spanish using the Rosetta Stone home-learning programmes, taking advantage of the brief pause in filming Countdown last year. “And it was possibly the one really worthwhile thing I did during lockdown – apart from obviously surviving and looking after my daughters,” she quips.
“I hate saying, ‘Oh I managed to do this, this and this’, it always sounds so self-congratulatory, but there were many, many days where I didn’t achieve anything at all, like so many of us. But this was a bit of an oasis for me actually, it just kind of took me away in my head to a different place; you know, to a sunny café on a side street, pretending I was talking to someone in Spanish, and it just really did my head a lot of good.”
Of course, Dent is no stranger to learning foreign words. “I’m not a polyglot at all, but I did French and German at university. German was my absolute love; it was always a gem for me, I find it the most beautiful, lyrical language, but I’ve always been conscious of the fact I don’t know Spanish. My daughter’s learning Spanish at school and I feel really frustrated I can’t help her. So that was the catalyst,” Dent explains, plus “the fact it’s such a useful language, such a beautiful language, and I just thought, ‘Well I really need to do this and I finally have a bit of time’.”
She’s fascinated by the longer-term benefits too – “There is so much research showing that learning a foreign language increases the size of your brain” – and finds the process can “soothe the soul as well.”
Work and words aside, what else brings Dent joy? “Well, I think like lots of people, joy wouldn’t necessarily be the defining word for the last couple of years. But it’s those simple pleasures we’ve all recaptured somehow. Obviously, my children bring me lots of joy and laughter,” adds Dent, who has two daughters – Lucy, 20, and Thea, 12.
“I’ve rekindled my passion for cycling. When the streets were completely empty, like many people I just took off on a bike. I’ve lived in Oxford for such a long time, but I started to go down roads I’d never considered going down and just follow my nose. Sometimes I got lost, going off into the countryside around the city. I had some punctures, I had those awful click-in pedals that meant I fell sideways in front of laughing people, but that was great for me.”
She lights up at mention of time spent “just laughing with my sister. That was such a big thing for me. I have an older sister and lockdown actually brought us so much closer,” notes Dent, saying they’d chat on the phone and go for walks when allowed – “and remember really stupid things from our childhood; we would just talk a lot.
“I think talking came back into fashion during the pandemic,” Dent adds. “Yeah, we keep in touch, but do we really talk?”
Susie Dent is learning Spanish with Rosetta Stone. They are offering readers up to 50% off on all courses. Visit www.rosettastone.co.uk/exclusive