Some 28 years have passed since I took my seat, rigid with fear, in Countdown’s Dictionary Corner for the first time and waited for the TV cameras to turn to me.
A newly fledged dictionary editor at Oxford University Press, I was a reluctant addition to the hit Channel 4 words and numbers game show, having resisted my boss’s suggestion that I audition on at least three occasions. I am happiest when flying below the radar — but there I was.
Somehow, I got through that first afternoon and, as the show’s resident lexicographer, that corner is now my second home.
And more importantly, the dictionary that sits in front of me has become my greatest friend.
I have always been a passionate linguist, picking up odds and ends of language for as long as I can remember.
I have always been a passionate linguist, picking up odds and ends of language for as long as I can remember, writes Susie Dent
As a child, I would find myself getting entirely lost in the ingredients on the back of a ketchup or shampoo bottle — even aeroplane safety instructions could absorb me for hours.
So, in a year when we have all found ourselves in need of old comforts, the dictionary has been where I find my solace. It is the one thing that transports me straight home, no matter where I am.
I have taken particular delight in selecting from my new book, Word Perfect, some wonderfully festive lost gems and obscurities to share with you. Twelve verbal comforts that have made me smile and which I hope can bring you pleasure too . . .
English lacks a word for the blurring of time during the Christmas holidays, when the boundaries of our days recede, the weeks seem to stretch and we lose all touch with the calendar, briefly and blissfully unaware of the date, the day or even the time.
Equally elusive is an adequate term for the period of limbo between Christmas and New Year. For Germans, it is zwischen den Jahren (between the years).
For some, the slang terms Twixtmas, Taintmas, Witching Week or Chrimbo Limbo might suffice.
But perhaps the closest we come in the dictionary is Merryneum: the days that straddle Christmas and New Year, just as the perineum is the name given to the area of skin that connects the anus and the genitals.
Some might also find a connection in the perineum’s ability to stretch during childbirth, just as this twilight period may seem to go on and on.
Among the gifts you might receive on the big day might be one or two ‘toe-covers’. A 1940s word for an ‘inexpensive or useless present’, presumably because a warmer for toes was considered the ultimate of these.
A subset of these utterly dispensable presents are the wonderclouts — coined around the 16th century — which belong in a category of their own.
These are showy items that look highly promising but turn out to be worthless upon closer investigation. They are a festive example of trumperiness: something of far less value than it seems.
‘Wonderclouts’ are a type of utterly dispensable present that at first looks highly promising but turns out to be worthless upon closer investigation
A rare Christmas gem that has had few outings in print, including in dictionaries. Confelicity is the pleasure you take from the happiness of others. It derives from the Latin con (with) and felix (happy) — and also the French félicité.
This is a rare word from the 19th century for a state of mind characterised by both a love of solitude and a dislike of other people.
It is made up of the Greek apo (away from) and anthropos (man), and seems perfectly tailored to that time at Christmas when a surfeit of human company pushes you to the point of latibulation — another pithy word, this time from Latin, meaning the act of hiding oneself in a corner.
Something many of us might be saved from this year — this wonderful word describes the hasty and frenzied tidying of a house just before guests arrive.
It captures the random throwing of things into cupboards and under furniture in an attempt to achieve some semblance of order before your family or friends descend — but if such efforts come to naught, perhaps a xenium might prove useful: a present given to a house guest as a softener.
‘Scurryfunge’ describes the hasty and frenzied tidying of a house just before guests arrive
The drug in Homer’s Odyssey that banished all worries from the mind. In modern usage, it refers to any concoction that sends us to a happier place.
It takes its name from the Greek for ‘not grief’. We might all be reaching for a nepenthe this festive season.
A 16th-century word signifying that it was time for a restorative drink in which ‘quaff’ nicely imitates the sound of a long, deep draught.
It is defined simply in the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘the season for drinking’. It unmistakably belongs to Christmas.
‘Quafftide’ is defined simply in the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘the season for drinking’. It unmistakably belongs to Christmas
The perfect word for the low-lying vapour that shrouds the land on a frosty morning. It is simply defined as ‘a winter mist’ and its roots lie in the Latin word brumalis meaning ‘belonging to the winter’.
With temperatures plummeting and thick frost forecast for the new year, there will be plenty of brumes to spot.
Seldom found in any dictionary, kalopsia fills a gap on such occasions as New Year’s Eve, and especially this year, when intoxication makes the world look a little better than it did before. Put simply, it is the state in which everything, and everyone, looks beautiful.
‘Yule’ is an archaic term for Christmas and comes from the Old Norse word jól — a 12-day pagan festival that took place at the winter solstice. It may also be the origin of the word jolly.
The Yule-hole is something for which many of us will surely be reaching at some point. The term is amply defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘the hole in the waist-belt to which the buckle is adjusted, to allow for repletion after the feasting at Christmas’.
‘Yule-hole’ is amply defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘the hole in the waist-belt to which the buckle is adjusted, to allow for repletion after the feasting at Christmas’
It sounds rather rude but this is the perfect sister word to Yule-hole and is the feeling of ‘sickness or indisposition resulting from excess in drinking or eating’.
Few entries in the dictionary seem so wholly appropriate to modern times, even while they have fallen completely out of modern use. Respair is one of them. The word is a clear variation of ‘despair’, in which ‘spair’ is a descendant, via French, of the Latin sperare (to hope).
It has just a single record in the Oxford English Dictionary from 1525, where it is rather beautifully defined as: ‘Fresh hope, or a recovery from despair.’
Word Perfect by Susie Dent is published by John Murray, £14.99. © Susie Dent 2020. To order a copy for £13.19 go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £15. Offer price valid until 31/12/2020.