Word Perfect: Etymological entertainment for every day of the year

Susie Dent (John Murray, 2020), 416pp, £14.99
ISBN 978 1529 311 51 8

Reviewed by Jill French

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Susie Dent, etymologist, lexicographer, logophile, long-standing word expert on Channel 4’s Countdown and CIEP honorary vice-president, brought out another book during lockdown in what she describes as the darkest of years. This brought her title count on Wikipedia to a baker’s dozen. Word Perfect is a fact-filled and entertaining selection of words that this self-confessed linguistic magpie has plucked from the less-visited areas of the dictionary. They are presented one or two for each day of a year, sometimes relevant to their season or month and at other times more randomly. Each word is described with its interesting back story or often its derivation.

I would suggest this is not so much a book to read sequentially and from cover to cover but more to be dipped into and enjoyed in short bursts – to be savoured over several sessions. Hard not to flip to your birthday and check that out. In this some will be luckier than others as it is pointed out that the language has far more words for ugly or of unpleasant appearance than it does for attractive.

There are fascinating insights into words like huffle-buffs; these, in perhaps a nod to our lockdown dress code, are described as ‘the old, shabby, but wonderfully homely clothes we tend to put on at the end of a very long week and – with luck – not take off again until Monday morning’.

There is a lovely description of a word, used in the eighteenth century and equivalent to the modern-day meh, ‘as meaning neither one thing nor the other’, that word being frobly-mobly. Will we be more forgiving, I wonder, if when next procrastinating we think we’re just futzing about?

Fascinating facts are revealed, like the way the @ symbol was seized from much earlier beginnings to help modern communication; the brave act which was the basis of the first use of nailing one’s colours to the mast; and the scuttlebutt being a forerunner to the watercooler. A good number of the words have a literary background, like newspeak, uxorious and utopia.

Some seem to have been chosen for their irresistible sound. Mubble fubbles is from the sixteenth century when it was used to describe melancholy or a sense of dread. Cuddlemebuff is one of many words from the past which describe an alcoholic drink. Zugzwang comes from chess and describes a no-win situation. Sounding out bang-a-bonk is hard to resist and we learn that it means ‘lying on a riverbank and watching the world go by’.

For specific days we discover that Bachelor’s Day is 29 February. The entry about the Ides of March is on 15 March and ‘robin’ appears in March too (this being on the basis that the songbird begins to breed in March). Who knew hurkle-durkle meant lie in? This entry appears on 27 July, which we are reminded is also National Sleepy Head Day. Later, chestnut is included in December as is wonderclouts. Several entries mention a connection to the coronavirus pandemic and it is in December that we see ‘respair’ with its definition of ‘fresh hope or a recovery from despair’.

Reviewing this book, I have tried to give a flavour of the wonderful nuggets of information dug up and drawn together about lots of words we use and have used over the centuries. Here I mention several of the fun facts, and perhaps I should have started out with a spoiler alert, but so packed is this book with interesting finds that there is much left to be discovered. Whether that reading be highly disciplined day by day and over a full year or in larger sections, it offers much amusement and is well worth recommending to anyone who finds English interesting.

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