Countdown to a New Era

Let’s get one thing straight immediately. I am a huge fan of Countdown. I have been watching it on and off since its debut on Channel 4 in 1982, and though I seldom catch it now, I still like to test myself when I get the chance.

I appeared on the show in 1986, and still have regrets all these years later. A combination of an excellent opponent and the arrogance of my over-confident youth conspired to send me spinning to defeat in a contest I led twice. I still get shivers when I hear the word Spearhead, the conundrum which finally ended my challenge. I know I let myself down at the end. Rather than sitting there smiling warmly, happy just to have taken part, my expression was a bewildering mixture of sulking and fury over the fact that I had actually lost. Not exactly what the tea-time audience expects and something which in hindsight I should have handled somewhat better.

But no matter. The reason for this diversion into my personal Countdown hell is because Dictionary Corner has moved with the times, and from now on, the validity of words will no longer be checked using a printed volume. Instead, Susie Dent and her assorted helpers will use Oxford Dictionaries Online to see whether the words put forward by contestants should be allowed to stand.

I warmly welcome this move. It means that rather than relying on a book, which by the nature of language is out of date while it is still on the printing press, contestants will now be able to offer words which are current and used and accepted by Oxford’s lexicographical powers. So expect to see Selfie put forward on the show pretty soon.

While there will doubtless be complaints, and the linguistic luddites among us will decry this as further evidence of the death of the English language, we should ignore their complaints. As I have said many times, language is a living, breathing entity, owned by its users, and if its users have deemed that a word is now part of the language, well how can Countdown beg to differ.

This move might actually help to sell that message. The growth and evolution of the dictionary is not necessarily something that a lot of people think about. By making the changing nature of language central to a popular programme like Countdown, it will increase awareness of how language develops and evolves and how vital it is that those changes are tracked and recorded. If this move helps to reinforce that message, then Countdown will have done a great deal more than just offer an entertaining diversion of an afternoon.

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