Naomi Adam

Word Up! Susie Dent’s ‘The Secret Lives of Words.’

Southport’s The Atkinson hosted a Dent-led exploration of meanings, malaphors, and the ‘million dollar question:’ why do we hate American English (y’all)?

Mumpsimuses *, time to Word Up!

‘I don’t much know what to expect,’ proclaimed seat H6 pre-performance; or, rather, the bearded fellow lexi-lover occupying it. Neither did I, to be honest, but what transpired was a two hour-long lexical love-in, nirvana for word nerds. This was the touring ‘an audience with’ show The Secret Lives of Words, led by etymologist and First Lady of lexicography, the Write Honourable Susie Dent, fresh from (Cats Does) Countdown’s Dictionary Corner.

It was a close-up of her smiling mug that filled the auditorium as the audience filed in, alongside an obviously carefully curated playlist of songs whose lyrics featured the word ‘word’ (So tell all the boys and girls to word up…). A fixer placed a single tumbler of tap water atop the table that stood beside the lectern on the stage, and proceedings were ready to begin. With the requisite Countdown terror tune to trumpet her arrival, of course. Doo doo doo, doo doo doo, doodoo doodoo, doodily doo, dooh… (‘It feels a lot longer than thirty seconds, doesn’t it?’ she professed to an amused audience.)

Talking of trumpeting, ever heard of ‘trumperiness?’ It’s a noun, describing not the state of being small-handed, scared of stairs and perpetually Wotsit-y in complexion, but, ahem, being extravagantly showy but essentially worthless. Apologies, Shakespeare, but it appears there is indeed something in a name. This was just a morsel among many on the lexical smorgasbord to be proffered by Miss Dent. Like a smellfeast **, I was soon hungry for more. Did you know, for example, that the word ‘ghost’ has its spectral silent ‘h’ courtesy of the whims of a single Flemish typesetter? Hence he aligned it with his native ‘gheest-’ dank uwel Mijnheer Printy van der Printface. Or were you aware that Elvis had no choice but to sing about blue, suede shoes, due to English adjectival rules that demand colour precede material, and size, age? What an old, big rulebook us native English speakers all inadvertently follow! Susie also shoehorned in a discussion of despised Americanisms (although Brits are to blame for sidewalk), orphaned negatives (consider me combobulated on the matter), as well as the mangling of metaphors. These were malaphors, and she expanded with instances of those determined to ‘burn that bridge when we come to it,’ and tabloid discussions of ‘Madonna and her elk.’

Clearly passionate about her subject, the Countdown queen takes a non-judgemental, inclusive approach to our colourful language in all its varied hues (and was keen to inspire this in others). Unassuming, too, in jeans and jumper, and enviable stilettoes. (Applaudingly, she stayed standing for the entirety of both parts- her metatarsals needed that interval.) Just as wryly, self-deprecatingly funny, as well, as any of the comedians who featured in cameos on the backing screen she had rigged up for the event. (She appears to have Jo(e)s Lycett and Brand on speed-dial, and they in turn Skype her from their baths.) A medium-strength expletive, for example, was wittily described as ‘the Balti of the swear word world.’ Speaking of the nation’s favourite takeaway, she also explained a phrase which has always hovered at the edge of comprehensibility for me: to curry favour. It has nothing to do with buttering up your boss via the medium of a butter chicken, apparently. ‘Favour’ is a corruption of ‘Favel,’ a legendary horse brushed to en fleek perfection by fawning admirers of his owner, the king. The curry comb was their equine grooming weapon of choice- hence to curry favel.

Im- Pala Don’t Preach: Madonna and ‘her elk.’

I’ve no qualms in claiming Susie Dent as my idol; it is said talented vocalists could sing the phonebook, but I would happily have her read me the dictionary. The woman is a legend, and for this national tour proved not only comedian and lexicographer, but (word) surgeon. In the interval audience members were invited to post any quandaries of the work ilk (elk?) in the foyer, to be answered by the lady herself. Then she fished through the ‘Susie Dent Word Surgery Box’ to end (sob) the evening. This meant she could tailor her insight directly to her onlooking audience. Even if she did open a can of worms by weighing in on the eternal scone/scohne debate…

Our English language, though, is so rich and complex that after two illuminating hours, Susie had, ahem, barely made a Dent in it. Though it definitely was an eye-peeling evening…

Susie Dent tours nationwide with The Secret Lives of Words until November. The next closest venue at which she will appear is the Lowry, Salford, on 11 June. Call 0343 208 6000, or visit the website,, for more details.

* A person who stubbornly maintains they are right, even when they aren’t.

** Dictionary time: look it up!

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