Susie Dent

1st August 2008 at 01:00
A formidable German teacher and a Princeton academic inspired the woman who went on to become word expert on Countdown, the television programme

Mrs Briscoe was formidable. She was strict - there was absolutely no chattering in her lessons and no laughter - and I was rather frightened of her. But she was so passionate about her subject that I loved the German language from the moment I first heard her speak it.

She taught me from the age of 13 at the Marist Convent in Ascot, and it was because of her that I did German at A-level, went on to study German and French at Oxford and an MA in German at Princeton University in America, and then went on to teach. She was a striking, well-groomed woman, probably in her early 40s then, with a lovely face and she wore bright red lipstick. I remember her as a slightly plump version of Miss Jean Brodie. She invested a lot of time in pupils who were enthusiastic, but didn't have much truck with those who weren't keeping up.

Lessons with Mrs Briscoe were intense, which suited me because I was quiet and quite studious. My parents got divorced when I was 13 and my way of dealing with the split was to dive into my work. I was ripe for learning.

By the time it got to A-levels a lot of pupils had dropped out, finding German too difficult, and there were just three of us in the class, which worked in our favour because we had hothouse attention. Mrs Briscoe chose some beautiful books for our set texts, such as the lyrical writings of Theodor Storm. I thought his work about nature and love so romantic. I find German much more powerful than any of the Romance languages. There's a wonderful quote that compares French with a park, English with a country garden and German with a deep wood.

Mrs Briscoe was a brilliant teacher, and it was she who triggered my passion for the German language, but it was Eric Santner, my professor at Princeton, who was my greatest inspiration.

When I went to America to study, I didn't know anybody and wasn't sure what I wanted to do with my life. Princeton is a very preppy Ivy League university and all the students seemed certain they wanted to become academics. With my English accent, pale complexion and black clothes, I looked and felt very different. Eric was a soulmate without knowing it, because he was also slightly different. He didn't fit into the whole preppiness of the place. He was a free spirit; an urbane, slightly alternative individual and one of the most thoughtful, inspiring and inspired people I have met. He was Jewish, dark and handsome with deep dark eyes. He wore little round glasses and dressed stylishly. I think he came from Chicago, but he'd lived in Germany for a long time.

I did my dissertation on madness in German literature and he was interested in the use of psychology in studying literature. We loved the Germany that emerged after all the horrors of the war. I remember seminars outside on sunny days, sitting on the grass listening to him and thinking how privileged I was to be there. He has had a phenomenally successful career, has written lots of books and is hugely respected - and rightly so.

I'd gone to Princeton to do a PhD, but changed to an MA, and without Eric wouldn't have stayed the course. I realised that academia wasn't for me, though I taught freshmen for a year and loved that. Eric completely supported my decision to change direction. I came home, joined the Oxford University Press, first working on bi-lingual dictionaries, then English dictionaries, and 15 years ago joined Countdown. I've made about 1,700 appearances now.

I've kept in sporadic touch with Eric, but not with Mrs Briscoe - though I did once bump into her in a library in Oxford and still felt rather awkward in her presence.

Susie Dent is best known as the word expert in Dictionary Corner in Countdown, the long-running TV programme on Channel 4. She is also the author of several books. The latest, Susie Dent's Words of the Year, will be published in September. She was talking to Pamela Coleman.

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