Susie Dent’s Top Tens: 10 best ‘Lost Positives’

It's not all doom and gloom. This week, Susie Dent's got a jolly list of lost positives to help us all look at the world with the glass half full. Find the top ten below. 

Susie Dent Top Ten

If English is anything to go by, we are a pessimistic lot at heart. Our language loves to dwell on the untidy, unruly, and altogether unwelcome things in life. For every compliment there are at least a dozen insults, and for each expression of happiness a hundred explanations of melancholy. But let’s take a moment to recognise the lost positives of language: the happier relatives of today’s bad, sad, and seamy descriptions that have inexplicably faded from view or that languish in the lost corners of the dictionary.

If I have a mission in life, it is to resurrect these happy words and thread them through our lives again. It’s said that the more emotional vocabulary you carry, the more power you have over your feelings. This might be the perfect way to try.

happiness susie dent


To be full of feck, in the 16th century, was to be powerful, efficient, and vigorous. ‘Feck’, leaving aside its euphemistic role in the swearing arsenal, is short here for ‘effect’.

persona grata

Unlike their objectionable cousin, a persona grata is an acceptable and entirely welcome individual. The term was once used primarily for a foreign visitor or diplomat, but it surely deserves wider use.


Oh to be adroit and smoothly elegant. ‘Ept’, it has to be said, is a deliberate back-formation from ‘inept’. In both the word is a simple variation on ‘apt’ meaning ‘suitable’ and ‘befitting’.

Gormful Roy Hodgson Susie Dent
Gormless? Gormful? Gaum? All the best in your retirement, Roy.


What is the ‘gorm’ so many of us seem to be without? In its earliest days as a legacy of the Vikings, ‘gaum’ had a dual personality, for it could mean either ‘to take heed’ or to ‘stare vacantly’. It is the former that sits behind ‘gormless’, describing one who is lacking in any kind of sense or sophistication. To be full of ‘gorm’, on the other hand, is to be discerning and vigilant. Even better, to be ‘gaum-like’ is to have an intelligent look about you.


‘Uncouth, unkissed’, decided Chaucer, suggesting no one ever found a partner by being uncultured and rough around the edges. ‘Couthy’ is still used in Scotland to describe someone who is well-mannered and pleasing.


Ok, this one isn’t in the dictionary, at least not yet. ‘Discombobulated’ began as a playful variation on such words as ‘discomfort’ and ‘discompose’. As such, ‘combobulated’ isn’t quite a recognised word, but Mitchell Airport in Milwaukee have, rather wonderfully, introduced their own Recombobulation Lounge, where passengers can exit security and gather themselves before striding on.


If you don’t believe in fate, then ‘evitable’ is the 16th-century word you need for any event that is entirely avoidable if acted upon properly.


An unruly crowd is one that embraces chaos and confusion. Far better then to be ‘ruly’, meaning simply that you follow the ‘rules’.

susie dent unruly crowd
Perhaps one day we will get ruly football crowds.


It was P.G. Wodehouse who gave us the opposite of ‘disgruntled’, in which the ‘dis’ is actually an intensifier attached to a previous use of ‘gruntle’ to mean ‘complain’. Bertie Wooster’s version is surely the one we ought to remember, however, when he considers of Jeeves: ‘He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.’


Perhaps the most beautiful of all lost positives, ‘ruthful’ means empathetic and merciful. The long-lost ‘ruth’ meant the quality of compassion and pity.

….As for ‘whelmed’

For the record, ‘whelmed’ is also in the dictionary, where it means simply ‘capsized’. It has therefore always been a negative, but we added ‘under’ and ‘over’ for extra oomph.

Want to hear more from Susie about the infinitely bizarre and fascinating world of language? She’s speaking to the top brass of British comedy and entertainment about just that, and it’s all free to listen to here on whynow.

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