linguistics and lexicography Love English

Stories behind Words: dench

After a short break, our popular Stories behind Words series returns albeit with a bit of a twist. These new stories will feature interesting terms and phrases – where they come from and how they have changed over time. Our first story in this new series, written by regular contributor Liz Potter, discusses the word dench. Would you like to suggest a word for the series? Contact us – we’d love to hear from you!


www.wordle.netIt’s not uncommon for people’s names to become words in their own right: a Cassandra is someone who predicts disaster but is not listened to, while a David and Goliath situation is one in which a small person or organization takes on and defeats a larger, more powerful opponent. Surnames can become words, too. The name Jeeves (originally a character in stories by the comic writer P.G. Wodehouse) is used to refer to a kind of personal assistant who can always find an ingenious solution to any problem. (The website ‘Ask Jeeves‘ claims to answer any question.)

So when the adjective dench (or Dench) started to be bandied around in 2012 as a general term of approval, with a meaning similar to ‘cool’, some people’s thoughts would have turned to the renowned English actor Dame Judi Dench. In fact Dame Judi had nothing to do with the word’s evolution – though perhaps quite a bit to do with its subsequent popularization.

The term was coined by the British rap artist Lethal Bizzle while playing a video game with his cousin, Arsenal footballer Emmanuel Frimpong. The pair started using the word on social media then, after someone printed it on a T-shirt, launched a clothing brand with slogans such as STAY DENCH. In late 2012 and early 2013, with Judi Dench doing the rounds of the chat shows to publicize her role in the latest James Bond film Skyfall, Bizzle’s coinage received a massive publicity boost. The mainstream media latched onto the fact that a much-loved actor’s surname had become a hip term of approval – and one which Dame Judi herself endorsed. (She was seen at one interview wearing a cap with a ‘STAY DENCH’ logo.)

On the Macmillan Dictionary site, dench got the full BuzzWord treatment back in April 2013, and subsequently entered the Macmillan Dictionary (with a hat tip to its originator) as part of the dictionary’s most recent update. Unaware of his word’s new status, Lethal Bizzle launched a campaign to ‘Get dench in the dictionary‘, together with a Facebook page, a Twitter feed, and even an ad on the London Underground. So when we contacted him to let him know his word already was in the dictionary (in this dictionary, at least), he gave us a little more background about its origins: “Whenever we would score a goal [while playing the video game], we would shout ‘What a dench goal’, and then we started using the word on social media and in songs”. It was taken up by a number of high-profile names (actors, musicians, footballers and so on), and was even heard on the popular soap EastEnders. He told us he was “very happy to find out that the word already appears in the Macmillan Dictionary!”

Dench made it into the dictionary not because it’s topical but because it satisfied our usual criteria (in terms of frequency and breadth of use). It’s hard to know why some words are more successful than others (after all, there are plenty of other ways of saying something is ‘cool’). In this case, the (unintentional) association with Judi Dench won’t have done any harm, coupled with the fact that it’s short, snappy, and has a satisfying sound. Whether it will still be around in five years’ time is anybody’s guess.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

1 Comment

  • You are really great, it’s always so interesting to read and learn about the story of new words.

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