Susie Dent hesitates and stares into the distance fora moment. She’s flipping through the vast mental Rolodex of uncommon words which has made her an accidental star. Clearly the semantic question I’ve just posed has flummoxed the queen of Countdown’s Dictionary Corner.
'Resipiscence,’ she says finally with a smile. ‘A return to a better state of mind. You reach wisdom and serenity, get to a place where you can do what you have always wanted to do. Freedom, I suppose.’ I’d asked her which word she’d use to describe the state of being of someone in mid-life – older, wiser, and willing to bring the lessons of the decades to bear.
Susie is the longest serving member of the Countdown team – she’s been on the show for 30 years and worked with all six presenters from Richard Whiteley to Anne Robinson, who recently announced she will be stepping down after a year in the role. More recently, she’s become an award-winning podcaster, a one-woman theatre show and a social media darling. One million people follow her on Twitter where her word of the day has acquired a loyal audience.
She is 57, though establishing that takes some very un-Countdown like working out on her fingers and an admission that she writes down her 75-times table every morning to improve her maths. (Seventy-five is a key number in the maths round of the show.)
‘It’s my bête noire,’ she confesses. If you asked me to multiply 75 by eight I’d still take 30 seconds to work it out. Complete mental block. You’d think after 30 years I’d be all right.’
Fame can make some people lose their moorings, lose whatever they became famous for in the first place. I just want to be the Dictionary Lady’
Susie, it turns out, is pretty self-deprecating for such an accomplished person. She can only dance ‘if I am really drunk and if it’s dark’, falls off her bike at traffic lights ‘because I’m clumsy’, is ‘only ever funny by mistake’ and can’t see a red carpet without ‘wanting to be off it’. She exudes the righteous glow of someone who has a cold shower every morning. But she’s not going to evangelise about her beauty regime. ‘Curglaff,’ she splutters, before explaining it’s a Scottish word to describe the shock of freezing water. ‘That’s the word in my head, every time I have a cold shower.’
Susie’s modesty is why, working as a lexicographer for Oxford University Press in the early 1990s, she declined the Countdown role three, perhaps four times. ‘It was so not on my radar, being out there, performing!’
Today it’s tricky to imagine the show without her, and she’s particularly proud to be part of the first-ever all-women line-up, with Anne Robinson in the chair and her dear friend Rachel Riley doing the numbers.
Anne is famously fierce, but Susie wasn’t terrified by her arrival a year ago since Anne had previously saved her bacon live on TV. ‘I’d been on Test the Nation [an IQ quiz show hosted by the so-called Queen of Mean on the BBC from 2002-2007]. It was my first time on live telly and I missed my cue. Anne could have annihilated me, but she didn’t. There is always trepidation when a new host comes but I think Countdown is so grounded by the format that we work around the show, it doesn’t work around us.’
She doesn’t make her own role sound glamorous. ‘I am always the one with a label sticking up or a pair of tights hanging out of my trousers. Twice I have had my shirt on back to front and had to say, “I meant to wear it like that”.’ She once had to borrow a bra off Rachel too, a nude strapless one, because she’d turned up with the wrong underwear for her on-screen outfit. ‘Rach just said, “Have one of mine”. It would be hard to find a more loyal friend.’
Unlike Rachel, who did Strictly Come Dancing and is now married to her former professional dance partner Pasha Kovalev, Susie would never consider competing for the Glitterball trophy. ‘Not in a million years. You’d be fair game for the media and I don’t want that. I’ve been self-conscious since I was tiny, massively self-conscious, acutely aware of the fact that I am me. Fame can make some people lose their moorings, lose whatever they became famous for in the first place. I just want to be the Dictionary Lady.’
Susie sticks to the vegetarian diet begun on principle 12 years ago and cycles around on her Italian Pinarello bike to keep fit. She is also keen to get back into the gym to regain some of the weight she’s lost due to medication she takes for an underactive thyroid. ‘I am really trying to put on weight all the time. I am so skinny I lose weight at the drop of a hat, it sounds lovely but it is not,’ she says.
So does she get a lot of attention from male Countdown fans? ‘Oh, I think Dictionary Corner discourages it,’ she declares. ‘Sitting wearing glasses and talking about swotty, nerdy things is not, on the face of it, the sexiest thing in the world!’
Words and language are sexy to her though. Susie has loved them since she was four when she remembers examining a shampoo bottle in the bath, wondering what it all meant.
She was convent-educated and did a term of Oxbridge preparation at Eton (in the Eighties a small number of girls were admitted). She attended while Boris Johnson was there, not that they mixed as she says the girls were ‘pretty much kept away from the boys’. She then studied modern languages at Oxford before going to Princeton in New Jersey to do a master’s in German. Back in the UK she applied for a job as a lexicographer at Oxford University Press, the role that would lead her to Countdown and ultimately make her Britain’s English teacher.
Then, ten years ago, Channel 4 made a mash-up between Countdown and edgy comedy panel show 8 Out of 10 Cats. Intended as a one-off, it was so successful it is still running today, titled 8 out of 10 Cats Does Countdown (Catsdown for short) and hosted by comedian Jimmy Carr.
It was my first time on live telly and I missed my cue. Anne [Robinson] could have annihilated me, but she didn’t’
There’s also Susie’s top-rated Something Rhymes with Purple podcast co-hosted with Gyles Brandreth; the one-woman stage show The Secret Lives of Words on a national tour until July; and a new book, her 14th, on the language of emotion coming later this year. And now she is joining Saga Magazine as a columnist.
‘I subtly recreated myself on Catsdown,’ she reflects. ‘It gave me the chance to show people I am not who they think I am in Dictionary Corner, demure and shy and reserved. At least, that’s not all I am. Catsdown has given me more opportunities and it’s wonderful to hit your stride in your fifties.’
This flourishing of her career has coincided with a significant change in her home life, the end of her 12-year marriage. She prefers not to speak about that but does say in passing: ‘I have zero social life. I can’t remember the last time I had one – pre-lockdown for sure,’
She lives in Oxford with her two daughters, Lucy, 22, who has recently graduated from university, and Thea, who is 14. ‘The working mum stuff it is hard,’ she says. ‘Despite going to a convent, the one thing I did not anticipate was the sense of guilt all of the time.’
Like millions of us, she self-soothes with online puzzle Wordle, which she has never failed to solve. ‘Wordle is like putting on an old baggy cardigan. It’s a kind of comfort blanket made out of words and even more necessary during uncertain times.’
Yet for her job Susie operates on the frontiers of language, chronicling its evolution, the rise of new words ‘which can be across the world in a minute’ and changes in meaning, such as with the word ‘woke’. ‘That’s had quite the journey,’ she comments. The same could be said of ‘journey’, derived from the French word for day, journée, which was once how far a man could travel from dawn to dusk.
Words that have evolved in meaning do sometimes get her into trouble on Countdown. ‘There is always so much room for innuendo,’ she admits. ‘I’ll say something which is in the Urban Dictionary, unaware it has any other meaning. Rachel knows, and I catch sight of her laughing out of the corner of my eye but I honestly don’t know what I have said.’ Susie usually Googles the rogue word on the way home. (She has plenty of examples, none of which are printable.)
Ask for her favourite word and she hesitates again because there are so many begging to be chosen. On the day I meet her it’s halcyon. ‘In Greek halcyon means kingfisher. In Greek myths, they laid their eggs on floating nests and the Gods had to calm the winds and the waters until the chicks hatched.
‘Halycon days are a time of happiness and tranquillity, and we all need that now,’ she says.
Countdown is on weekdays on Channel 4 at 2.10pm
Hair and makeup by Maryan Aftab. Clothes: White shirt and trousers by Zara, zara.com; Prince of Wales double breasted Jacket by Winser London, winserlondon.com.
Susie’s first column will be in June’s Saga Magazine. Subscribe below.
Subscribe today for just £29 for 12 issues...