Susie Dent is Countdown’s Dictionary Corner Queen and co-host of the Something Rhymes with Purple podcast. Here, she unravels the language used in conversations around fertility, dating trends and astrology. Prepare to be fascinated.
When “they” was announced the word of the last decade, it proved just how powerfully language can define a moment in time. The addition of non-binary, deep-fake, climate strike and milkshaking (referring to the banana milkshake thrown at Nigel Farage) to the dictionary only further proves this point about the impact of language. And when it comes to the words invented for dating trends, we continue to see new terms almost weekly, defining every type of experience that people can relate to.
Basically: words really do make the world go round.
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With this in mind, Stylist caught up with lexicographer Susie Dent, to ask her about the language being used in conversations on the issues we’re discussing a lot right now.
Podcaster Elizabeth Day recently discussed how the language used in fertility is constructed to make women feel pressured and like a failure if they cannot conceive. “A lot of the language around fertility medicine was the language of failure,” she said, when talking about her IVF. “I was told that my womb was ‘inhospitable’ because it’s a certain shape. And my friend was told that she had an ‘incompetent’ cervix.”
Explaining the history of the negative language used around women’s fertility, Dent tells Stylist: “The word hysterical goes back to the Greek word for uterus: hystera. When your womb wasn’t properly settled in your body, it meant that you were prone to all sorts of emotional outbursts – so hysterectomy, hysterical and hysterically funny are all linked to that idea of the shifting womb.
“Even today, it is only women who are still described as being hysterical.”
And even when a woman did conceive, negative language was still often used. “For a long time, a woman would ‘fall pregnant’ and that kind of ‘fall’ is somehow suggestive of a ‘slip up’ on the woman’s part,” Dent continues. “And even when it was used positively, that phraseology has stayed there with that kind of secret history tucked in it.”
Ghosting. Elsa-ing. Breadcrumbing. Dogfishing. Jekylling. What is it with our obsession with labelling dating terms and where the hell do they come from? According to Dent, it’s all down to trying to identify ourselves and our experiences by using tribal language.
“We talk about dating all the time, so we need to develop a sort of tribal language for it, where everyone knows what you’re talking about,” she says.
“Language catches up with our preoccupation. So when we’re really focused on one sort of thing, language will start to proliferate and the lexicon will then emerge. They’re pictures really, because then you can really take snapshots of what’s going on at a particular time.”
Anyone with a dating horror story will relate to Dent’s words, as she continues: “Sometimes dating can be an emotional topic to talk about, so that kind of tribal slang might make it easier because you slip into a code that somehow will make the whole conversation more fluid, and you don’t necessarily have to reveal your emotions by using more words to describe them.
“And it can be fun! We all have our own shorthand language with our group. It can unite and make people feel together in a group.”
The number of millennials turning to astrology is rising. Perhaps, during these turbulent times, the language used in horoscopes can give a sense of direction or comfort?
“I don’t read my horoscope, so I probably don’t have the best answer,” laughs Dent. “But I have seen a resurgence in its popularity.”
She continues: “Right throughout history, we’ve always been influenced by the stars and the planets: like how the months are defined by the moon. It’s also influenced our language. For example, the word disaster means ‘bad star’ – so any disaster is meant to come from an unfortunate alignment of the stars. And flu and influenza are Italian for influence – that’s thought to be influence from the stars.
“We’ve always looked to the stars for having impact on human destiny – just look at Shakespeare’s ‘star-crossed lovers’.”
You can subscribe to Susie Dent and Gyles Brandreth’s Something Rhymes With Purple podcast now on Apple, Spotify and all other podcast providers.
Images: Getty, Susie Dent
Hollie is a digital writer at Stylist.co.uk, mainly covering the daily news on women’s issues, politics, celebrities and entertainment. She also keeps an ear out for the best podcast episodes to share with readers. Oh, and don’t even get her started on Outlander…
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