■ The Countdown dictionary guru, 53, on the history of the F-bomb, risque out-takes and her new word game and tour
How does your Two Words game work?
It’s a word game and the beauty is its simplicity — there are only ever two words on the screen, your opponent puts a word up and you can change it or add to it. Each letter has a score so it’s similar to Scrabble in that way. You can play it against friends or against one of the bots. The most difficult bot is the SusieBot and even I find her hard to beat. I’ve got 25 games on the go — including against [Countdown co-host] Rachel Riley who is really good at it, annoyingly. Rufus Hound is also incredibly good.
Do games like this improve people’s vocabularies?
Definitely and I’ve noticed it’s given me an edge to my Countdown playing. It’s honed my skills. It’s added to my arsenal. All word games will help with your verbal skills.
Your tour’s coming up — is it just you on a stage?
It’s a new thing for me and I’m really looking forward to it. There’s a great word, ‘betwittered’, which I use when I talk about the tour — the old definition was ‘overcome with pleasing excitement’. I’m quite nervous but in a good way. There’s no support act but I do have funny videos, Countdown outtakes and messages from the comics on 8 Out Of 10 Cats Does Countdown.
Do all the outtakes feature swear words?
It’s less swear words and more innuendo. Usually Nick [Hewer, the host] and I are blissfully unaware and Rachel tells us, ‘You can’t say that’. One day there had been a series of incredibly easy number games so Rachel didn’t have to do anything and Nick looked over to her and said, ‘Poor Rachel, she’s gagging for a hard one’. There was another occasion when I was doing the etymology of items of clothing. I got to underwear and was talking about suspenders and teddies — I looked at Nick and said, ‘I don’t know if you’ve ever come across a teddy, Nick?’ at which point Rachel doubled over and Martin Lewis, who was in dictionary corner, was banging his head on the desk. Things like that happen often.
Are swear words permitted on the show?
Not really. You can put ‘w****r’ on the board but it’s bleeped out, you’re not allowed to say it. ‘S***face’ was allowed but also bleeped out.
Could they have put a ‘d’ on the end for an extra point?
No, there was a ‘d’ on the board but we had two excellent contestants that day who left the ‘d’ out because they knew ‘s***-faced’ wouldn’t be allowed as it’s hyphenated. Any dictionary will have lots of slang in it, as that’s the precise area that needs decoding.
Are you asked about swear words all the time?
I did a series about swearing for the Channel 4 website and the history is fascinating. A lot of words viewed as obscenities today didn’t start off that way — they were quite innocuous. We tend to talk about ‘those Anglo-Saxon words’ but the only obscenity from that period is ‘s***.’ All the others come from later centuries — including the C-word. That has its origins around the 13th century and was used quite freely. The big taboo area at that time was religious profanity — so ‘damn’ or ‘god damn’ would be asterisked out but words we’d regard as obscene today weren’t. In many cultures today you’ll still find religious profanity is weighed far more heavily than words relating to bodily functions — it’s a good marker of showing what our cultural preoccupations are at any one time.
So ‘f***’ isn’t Anglo-Saxon?
No, that’s from around 1300 but the origins are really obscure. There’s a story linking it to an acronym ‘Fornication Under Command of the King’. The story goes that the population was very much reduced by the plague so the king decreed couples should spend time procreating and they’d hang a sign saying ‘F***’ on the door explaining that’s what was happening. It’s hogwash. When an acronym is invented to explain a word it’s called a ‘backronym’. We think f*** is linked to the Latin ‘pugnare’, which has undergone many sound changes — it originally meant ‘to hit’.
How did you get into all this?
Not into swearing particularly — I went to a convent so none of this would have been acceptable — but I’ve always been interested in language. One of my earliest memories is from when I was four, standing in the bathroom reading the ingredients on the back of a shampoo bottle and realising they were in different languages and that children around the world were speaking different languages from my own. As I got older I’d sit in the car going on holiday reading French and German vocabulary books. I was a true nerd. And being a nerd wasn’t very trendy in those days.
You’ve done Countdown for 25 years. Not fed up with it yet?
Never. I still feel the adrenaline when the clock runs and I still feel nerves, especially if we’ve had a break from the show. That never fades away.
Two Words with Susie Dent is on iOS and Android, playtwowords.com. Dent is on tour from Sep 17, susiedentlive.com