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Susie Dent: speaking up

27 July 2022

This month Countdown’s Susie Dent is on a mission to bring more positivity back into the English language.

Susie Dent portrait
Susie Dent photographed by Michael Leckie

Being a lexicographer, I tend to linger on the dark side. Much as I would love to be leafing through pages of positivity and sunshine, the dictionary will often provide the opposite. After years of studying its thousands of entries I’ve come to the conclusion that we love to dwell on the sad and seamy side of life, and that we like nothing better than a good old moan. Is the weather dreary and dreich? No problem – you’ll find dozens of words to express it. Balmy and sun-drenched, on the other hand, that’s a bit more of a stretch.

I have been on a bit of a mission in recent years to restore the lost positives of English. Because wherever you find a negative, the chances are that at some point their happier counterpart was alive and well before being kicked cruelly into touch. Did you know, for example, that a few hundred years ago you could be kempt, ruly, ruthful, couth, and full of feck? That people strived to be ept, wieldy, mayed, and pecunious? All of these expressed happy states of being and feeling – only we clearly didn’t rate them much, for their gloomy sidekicks eventually left them for dust.

The sorry states that managed to survive have been described by linguists as ‘orphaned negatives’, because at some point their smiling parents became extinct. Wouldn’t it be nice to revive them so that next time your child or colleague does something really intelligent, you can tell them they are full of ‘gorm’? The Vikings might have done just that, for ‘gorm’ and ‘gaum’ come from their language of Old Norse and a word meaning to ‘take heed’. To be ‘gorm-like’, rather wonderfully, meant to ‘have an intelligent look’ about you.

‘It would be nice if we could be chalant and shevelled in our gruntlement’

It was PG Wodehouse who gave us the joyful idea of being gruntled – ‘I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled’, we hear of Jeeves in The Code of the Woosters. It would be even nicer if we could be chalant and shevelled in our gruntlement, or even recombobulated, but those have yet to be recognised in the dictionary. That said, Mitchell Airport in Milwaukee has rather wonderfully introduced a ‘Recombobulation Area’, where passengers can take a breath after passing through security.

The fact that some of these positives aren’t mentioned in the dictionary shouldn’t hold us up. English positively delights in playfulness, and this game is surely one of the best. In an ingenious New Yorker article called How I Met My Wife, Jack Winter has a field day with both real and fictional lost positives. ‘I wanted desperately to meet her, but I knew I’d have to make bones about it, since I was travelling cognito. Beknownst to me, the hostess, whom I could see both hide and hair of, was very proper, so it would be skin off my nose if anything bad happened.’ Happily, in the end, his wife was committal, and his love was entirely requited.

I recently discovered another lost positive, albeit one cast in a different mould. It is a word for focusing on the little things in life – the small splashes of joy that can be found even in the most trivial of things. This is philocaly, a love of beauty wherever you may find it. Sometimes it’s important to remember the forgotten happinesses of our language. Life may be feeling heavy, but we can try to hold on to the good. Amid all the suffering on our screens and airwaves, we could aspire to be ‘consolate’ once again, consoled and comforted by happier news.

Even if gruntlement seems a little way off, we can all hope to be recombobulated soon.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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