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On twitter today was a hashtag thread of #greatwords. There were some truly wonderful bon mots flying across the ether: gobshite, skedaddle, mittens. Being the smart arse you all know and (usually) tolerate, I had to join in. My contribution? Floccinaucinihilipilification. Yes, this really is a word. It’s definition is the estimation of something as valueless (encountered mainly as an example of one of the longest words in the English language). I also felt obliged to mention that I had occasion to use it in anger. Once. On TV.
Let me explain.
Many, many years ago there was a game show on TV called Catchword, hosted by Paul Coia. I watched this programme religiously – loved it. I have always liked words and the more unusual, the better. Remember, smart arse…? Anyway, I applied to be on the show and after a telephone interview and an audition at the BBC studios in Queen Margaret Drive, Glasgow, I was invited to participate. I feel obliged at this juncture to mention that although I decry reality TV and game shows ad nauseum usually, this one was broadcast on BBC 2 and therefore makes any sarcastic comments null and void.
It took me ages to decide what to wear for my Big Moment: trousers or skirt? Shirt or jacket? I eventually went for a bright blue suit with a short skirt – I had legs in those days – and off I trotted to the studios to record the show. I’ll leave out the bit about leaving my make-up bag on the Clockwork Orange and having to fight with the insurance company for compensation because I hadn’t reported it to the police (well, I mean, you wouldn’t, would you?) for another time.
There were six of us in the Green Room – look how easily the jargon trips from me – and we had a little chat, sizing one another up before we went through to sit before the audience. Paul Coia, whom I had previously thought of as a slimy git was absolutely lovely – warm, chatty, friendly and not at all condescending. Which is just as well given what was to come.
We sat down in our groups for a run through for the lighting and cameras and each had our photograph taken with Paul – I still have it somewhere – and then the show began in earnest. The audience was seated and we were individually introduced. The lights dimmed, the music began, the voiceover did his bit and when the lights went up again, the show had begun.
Paul introduced us and had a chat to put us at our ease. Yeah, right, like that was going to happen. Part of the application form asked you for three words that described yourself. I couldn’t take this as seriously as some I saw who described themselves as creative, kind, passionate – pass the sick bag, please! I wrote that I was a ‘lean, mean, computing-machine’ (I worked in IT at the time). Didn’t sound half as funny when Paul read it out.
“It says here,” said our host,”that you like to write short stories. What sort of stories do you write?” At that point in my writing I was mainly exploring the role of women in a male dominated world, what it meant to be a woman in 1990’s Britain, and how the role had changed over the years. Of course, that was going to sound dead arsey if I came out with that, wasn’t it? So I told him, “Erm, usually ones that are…. too long.” Are you impressed? Cos sure as hell no one else was. Paul moved on.
For those of you who haven’t heard of Catchword before, the games consisted of a number of rounds, each of which revolved around finding words with the three letters provided in them. For example, if you were shown the letters MPL you might say ‘ManiPuLation’ or ‘MultiPLe’. Each word had to begin with the first letter and contain the other two in the order they were provided. Simples.
Round One: I did well, gaining points for each word I came up with and extra points for the longest word. I was winning.
Round Two: I did even better and was surging ahead.
Then it occurred to me, blimey, I could win this thing.
And I got nervous.
Very, very nervous.
Round Three: I stumbled through the first few letter combinations and was doing OK, but my hands were shaking and I had a herd of rhinos running around my stomach. Then came a tricky three letter combo: NPT. Now, in the cold light of day and the 20/20 vision of after sight I can think of several words that would fit. NuPTial and NePoTism to name but two. But what did yours truly say?
Yes, in a BBC 2 word game broadcast throughout the nation, I said numpty.
Out the corner of my eye I saw Mr. Coia sitting at his desk, banging his head off it, his hand over his mouth trying to stop the laughter from escaping. The camera man had moved away from his equipment because he was chuckling so heartily. The floor staff were literally bent over their clipboards, desperately trying to stifle the guffaws. And the audience? They were gone.
My next three letters came up: MRR. I managed to think of MuRdeRer (can’t think why) and stumble through the rest of my round. At the end, the studio was in an uproar.
Paul was absolutely lovely, trying to deal with it lightly. He told me it was his all time favourite word but, unfortunately, it didn’t appear in the Chambers Dictionary, so I couldn’t get a point for it, no matter how much he wished I could.
The game continued. I didn’t win.
But I like to think at the Christmas Party that year, the out-takes reel contained my little gem.
Honestly, I felt such a numpty.
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