The Allusionist

By Helen Zaltzman for Radiotopia

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 Jan 17, 2019
Funny, clever, and informative. Not just dictionary and grammar, but history, psychology, and sociology on language, too.

 Jan 12, 2019
So much fun with words. beautiful

 Nov 17, 2018

A Podcast Republic user
 Aug 9, 2018


Linguistic adventures with Helen Zaltzman, A proud member of Radiotopia from PRX. Learn more at

Episode Date
Extra special QUIZ!
For a bit of fun to celebrate Radiotopia’s 2018 fundraiser, this episode is a wordy quiz for you to play along with as you listen. Get a pen and paper, or fill in your answers online at Also! I’ve put together an Allusionist print-at-home puzzle book, featuring a wordsearch, crossword, some jollity with portmanteaus, … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">Extra special QUIZ!</span></a>
Dec 18, 2018
91. Bonus 2018
Throughout the year, the people who appear on the Allusionist tell me a lot of interesting stuff. Not all of which is relevant to the episode they initially appeared in, so I stash it away in preparation for this moment: the annual bonus episode! Get ready for gory 19th century London slang, the rise and … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">91. Bonus 2018</span></a>
Dec 16, 2018
90. Dear Santa
Jim Glaub and Dylan Parker didn’t think too much of it when, every year, a few letters were delivered to their New York apartment addressed to Santa. But then one year, 400 letters arrived. And they decided they had to answer them. Find out more about this episode at, and visit to learn … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">90. Dear Santa</span></a>
Nov 30, 2018
89. WPM
This is a story of feats of speed and endurance, of record-breakers, of champions… Typing champions. Recorded live at the Hot Docs Podcast Festival in the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto on 4 November 2018, WPM is performed by me and Martin Austwick. Find out more about this episode at **There is … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">89. WPM</span></a>
Nov 17, 2018
88. Name Changers
Why did you change your name? And why did you choose the name you chose? Listeners answer these two questions. Hear their stories of gender identity, family fallouts, marriages, divorces, doxxing, cults, and…just not liking your given name very much. Find more about this episode at This episode is part of Name Season here … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">88. Name Changers</span></a>
Nov 04, 2018
87. Name v. Law
Iceland has quite exacting laws about what its citizens can be named, and only around 4,000 names are on the officially approved list. If you want a name that deviates from that list, you have to send an application to the Icelandic Naming Committee, whose three members will decide whether or not you’re allowed it. … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">87. Name v. Law</span></a>
Oct 22, 2018
86. Name Therapy
“It’s the word that you use the most often and the soonest to describe yourself, and yet nobody’s really ever talked about how it kind of makes me feel like this.” Until Duana Taha, who, after a lifetime of feelings about her own unique name, became the Name Therapist. Duana offers advice on how to … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">86. Name Therapy</span></a>
Oct 08, 2018
85. Skin Story
“I wanted a story that actually lives, and actually dies, and disappears.” In 2003, artist and author Shelley Jackson started the Skin Project: a story printed, word by word, as tattoos on volunteers. Find more about this episode at The Allusionist live tour comes to the US, Canada, and Ireland during autumn 2018: … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">85. Skin Story</span></a>
Sep 23, 2018
84. Trammels
Why would you write books or poems or plays with only one vowel? Or in palindromes? Or only using the example sentences in dictionaries? Sometimes you need to force yourself to jump a few hurdles (and perhaps the rest of the obstacle course) before your creativity will be unleashed. Find more about this episode at … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">84. Trammels</span></a>
Sep 08, 2018
83. Yes, As In
“Really? As in the animal/foodstuff/music genre?” “Is that a stripper name?” “What were your parents thinking?” When your name is a word that is more usually a noun or adjective than a human moniker, you hear the same questions a lot. But there’s a story in every name, and yours is probably a more interesting story … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">83. Yes, As In</span></a>
Aug 26, 2018
82. A Novel Remedy
When you’re feeling unwell, what’s the book you read to make yourself feel better? And why does it work? Clinical psychologist Jane Gregory explains why she sometimes prescribes novel-reading to her patients; and academic Guy Cuthbertson tells how post-WW1 Britain was soothed by Agatha Christie. Find out more about this episode at The Allusionist … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">82. A Novel Remedy</span></a>
Aug 13, 2018
81. Shark Week
Today, we’re dipping into the Allusionist mailbag full of listeners’ linguistic requests, with the help of special guest Hrishikesh Hirway of Song Exploder and The West Wing Weekly podcasts.  What is the expression ‘beyond the pale’ on about? How do you express the absence of feeling? Does ‘testify’ have anything to do with testicles? Do avocados … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">81. Shark Week</span></a>
Jul 28, 2018
Imaginary Advice: S.E.I.N.F.E.L.D.
Hello! I’m currently in hospital so am having to take a little time off work. Therefore, instead of a new Allusionist episode today, here’s my favourite audio piece I’ve heard this year: ‘S.E.I.N.F.E.L.D.’ from Ross Sutherland’s podcast Imaginary Advice. NB: the episode contains a couple of Strong Terms. Hear more Imaginary Advice episodes – some of my favourites … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">Imaginary Advice: S.E.I.N.F.E.L.D.</span></a>
Jun 29, 2018
80. Warm Front
Today will be fine. But wait: fine as in ‘OK’, fine as in ‘really rather good’, or fine as in ‘no precipitation’? When you’re a TV weather forecaster, you have to deal with the mismatch of your specialist vocabulary with that of the meteorological laypeople watching – as well as cover all the weather across … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">80. Warm Front</span></a>
Jun 17, 2018
79. Queer
Strange or obtuse; a stinging homophobic slur; a radical political rejection of normativity; a broad term encompassing every and any variation on sexual orientation and gender identity: the word ‘queer’ has a multifarious past and complicated present. Tracing its movements are Kathy Tu and Tobin Low from Nancy podcast, Eric Marcus from Making Gay History, historian and author Amy Sueyoshi, and Jonathan … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">79. Queer</span></a>
Jun 03, 2018
78. Oot in the Open
You are born and raised in a household speaking a language. Then you start going to school, and that language is banned. If you speak it, you’ll be punished physically or psychologically. Across your country, there are people like you who associate their first language with shame, or not even being a language at all. … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">78. Oot in the Open</span></a>
May 21, 2018
42+43. Survival: The Key rerun
To accompany the current Allusionist miniseries Survival, about minority languages facing suppression and extinction, we’re revisiting this double bill of The Key episodes about why languages die and how they can be resuscitated. The Rosetta Stone and its modern equivalent the Rosetta Disk preserve writing systems to be read by future generations. But how do … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">42+43. Survival: The Key rerun</span></a>
May 05, 2018
77. Survival part 1: Second Home
There are two main places in the world where the Welsh language is spoken: Wales, and the Chubut Province in Patagonia. How did this ancient language take root in rural Argentina, 12,000km away from its home base? Find out more about this episode at The Allusionist’s online home is Stay in touch at … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">77. Survival part 1: Second Home</span></a>
Apr 21, 2018
76. Across the Pond
Pavement/sidewalk; football/soccer; bum bag/fanny pack: we know that the English language is different in the UK and the USA. But why? Linguist Lynne Murphy points out the geographical, cultural and social influences that separate the common language. Find out more about this episode at The Allusionist’s online home is Stay in touch at … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">76. Across the Pond</span></a>
Apr 07, 2018
75. Ear Hustling
Today we’re going inside to open up the unofficial dictionary of San Quentin state prison, compiled by Earlonne Woods of Ear Hustle podcast. Content note: this episode contains some Adult Terms. Find out more about this episode at The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a collective of the best podcasts … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">75. Ear Hustling</span></a>
Mar 23, 2018
74. Take A Swear Pill
CONTENT WARNING: there is swearing in this episode. But the happy news is: swearing is good for you! Dr Emma Byrne, author of Swearing Is Good For You, explains how swearing can be beneficial to your physical health and emotional wellbeing, while Matt Fidler of Very Bad Words podcast gives some tips to ensure you … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">74. Take A Swear Pill</span></a>
Mar 09, 2018
73. Supername!
Up in the sky: look! It’s an adjective! It’s a noun! It’s…Adjectivenoun!  Your friendly neighbourhood superheroes might have thrilling and varied powers and spandex garments, but the way their names are concocted have followed only a handful of formulae in the past 80 years, since Superman sent superheroes soaring.  (Yes, alliteration is one such naming formula.) Glen Weldon … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">73. Supername!</span></a>
Feb 24, 2018
72. Hey
“Hey.” “Going to the supermarket, want me to get you anything?” “Puppies or ice cream?” “What’s your glasses prescription?” “I wanna ***** your *********.” If you’ve used a dating app, maybe you’ve received one of the above messages from a stranger, or sent them. Striking up an interaction with someone is a tricky business. Why … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">72. Hey</span></a>
Feb 09, 2018
71. Triumph/Trumpet/Top/Fart
It’s a year since Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States. And in that year, he’s caused a lot of changes in the job of constitutional law professor Elizabeth Joh of TrumpConLaw podcast – in particular, one verb is now off limits. Plus: Paul Anthony Jones, aka etymologist extraordinaire Haggard … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">71. Triumph/Trumpet/Top/Fart</span></a>
Jan 26, 2018
70. Bonus 2017
It’s the annual bonus episode. Throughout the year, the people who appear on the show tell me a lot of interesting stuff, not all of which is relevant to the episode they initially appeared in, so I stash it away in preparation for this moment. This year, hear about the history of roller skates, zazzification, … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">70. Bonus 2017</span></a>
Dec 23, 2017
69. How the Dickens stole Christmas
Charles Dickens wrote about the plight of the impoverished and destitute members of British society. So how come his name is a synonym for rosy-cheeked, full-stomached, fattened-goose, hearty merry “God bless us every one” Christmas? Avery Trufelman and Katie Mingle of 99% Invisible report from the streets of Victorian London at the annual Dickens Christmas Fair … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">69. How the Dickens stole Christmas</span></a>
Dec 09, 2017
68. Curse Soup
Somebody has really ticked you off. You’re all steamed up inside and you want to vent that rage using words, but you don’t want to confront them directly because you’re either too polite or too cowardly. So do you: A. Subtweet them. B. With your finger, scrawl an insulting message into the dirt on their … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">68. Curse Soup</span></a>
Nov 25, 2017
67. Open Me part II
You’re holding a letter. What’s inside? A weather report from 5,000 miles away? Some devastating family history? A single word? A heartfelt dispatch from your past self that’s about to change the course of your life? Find out more about this episode at The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">67. Open Me part II</span></a>
Nov 10, 2017
66. Open Me part I
From Me To You’s Alison Hitchcock and Brian Greenley didn’t know each other well. But when Brian was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, Alison offered to write him letters. 100 letters later, their lives were changed. One of the newest members of Radiotopia is Ear Hustle, a podcast made inside San Quentin by and about … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">66. Open Me part I</span></a>
Oct 27, 2017
65. Eponyms III: Who’s That Guy?
Roman Mars returns for our annual dose of eponyms – words that derive from people’s names. This year: explosive revelations about the origins of the word ‘guy’. Find out more about this episode at CONTENT NOTE: the episode contains a description of 17th century torture and execution. The show’s online home is Stay … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">65. Eponyms III: Who’s That Guy?</span></a>
Oct 14, 2017
64. Technobabble
You’ve encountered technobabble when Doc Brown is shouting about flux capacitors in Back To The Future, or when Isaac Asimov writes about positronic brains. Astrophysicist Katie Mack and NASA JPL technologist Manan Arya discuss how science fact relates to science fiction. This episode is a collaboration with Eric Molinsky of Imaginary Worlds; listen to his … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">64. Technobabble</span></a>
Sep 30, 2017
63. Evolution of Accents
“Accent is identity. It’s a way of encoding and signaling – almost completely at an unconscious level for most people – who they feel like they are, who they want to be seen as, what group they feel like they belong to.” The podcast Twenty Thousand Hertz investigates how accents have evolved in the UK … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">63. Evolution of Accents</span></a>
Sep 15, 2017
62. In Crypt, Decrypt
Crossword-solving is often a solitary activity – over breakfast; on the train; on the loo… But a few times a year, crossword puzzle enthusiasts gather in their hundreds to compete to be the fastest, most accurate crossword-solver. This episode comes to you from a church basement on the Upper East Side of New York City, … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">62. In Crypt, Decrypt</span></a>
Sep 02, 2017
61. In Your Hand
“It’s sort of frozen body language; that’s what handwriting analysis is about.” Since it caught on a couple of hundred years ago, graphology – analysing handwriting to deduce characteristics of the writer – has struggled to be taken seriously as a practice. But undoubtedly, there are things about ourselves that we can’t help but reveal … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">61. In Your Hand</span></a>
Aug 19, 2017
60. Zillions
They look like numbers. They sound like numbers. You kinda know they are numbers. But they’re not actually numbers. Linguistic anthropologist Stephen Chrisomalis explains what’s going on with indefinite hyperbolic numerals like ‘zillion’, ‘squillion’ and ‘kajillion’. For more about this episode, visit Come to see the live show at the London Podcast Festival in … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">60. Zillions</span></a>
Aug 05, 2017
59. One To Another
Translation, A Love Story: Translator listens to The Allusionist. Translator hears about the podcast The Memory Palace. Translator listens to The Memory Palace. Translator immediately becomes smitten with The Memory Palace. Translator translates The Memory Palace from English to Brazilian Portuguese, and turns it into a book – O Palácio da Memória – which will … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">59. One To Another</span></a>
Jun 30, 2017
58. Eclipse
It’s August 2007. Lauren Marks is a 27-year-old actor and a PhD student, spending the month directing a play at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. She’s in a bar, standing onstage, performing a karaoke duet of ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’…and then a blood vessel in her brain bursts. When she wakes up in hospital, days … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">58. Eclipse</span></a>
Jun 16, 2017
57. AD/BC
There’s a small matter I trip over regularly in the Allusionist: Dates. Not the fruit. Specicially, the terms BC and AD, Before Christ and Anno Domini (‘the year of the Lord’ (‘the Lord’ also being Christ)). How did Jesus Christ get to be all up in our system of counting the years? There’s more about … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">57. AD/BC</span></a>
Jun 02, 2017
56. Joins
As discussed in episode 51, Under the Covers part II, the vocabulary for sex and associated body parts is tricky to navigate in many ways – but even more so if you are trans or gender non-binary. CONTENT NOTE: this episode contains strong language and frank discussions of sex and bodies. There’s more about the … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">56. Joins</span></a>
May 19, 2017
55. Namaste
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Hrishikesh Hirway of Song Exploder wants people to stop saying ‘namaste’ after a yoga session. There’s more about this episode at Stay in touch at and The Allusionist is a proud member of for … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">55. Namaste</span></a>
May 05, 2017
54. The Authority
“Sometimes you want to make the dictionary sexy but it’s just not a sexy thing,” says Kory Stamper, lexicographer for the Merriam-Webster dictionaries. Sorry if this is disillusioning news for you. The dictionary is not a sexy thing, but as Kory explains, it is a fascinating, complicated, exacting thing. There’s more about this episode at … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">54. The Authority</span></a>
Apr 14, 2017
53. The Away Team
“Recognizing someone’s humanity is crucial. Calling someone a migrant, calling someone an asylum seeker, calling them a refugee: these are official categories. But in many ways, depending on how they use them, they can change and become more negative.” So says propaganda and migration specialist Emma Briant, as she explains the dangers of conflating and … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">53. The Away Team</span></a>
Apr 01, 2017
14 rerun: Behave
Sometimes words can become your worst enemy. Clinical psychologist Jane Gregory tells how to defuse their power. There’s more about this episode at The main part of this episode is a rerun, but there’s new material as well – get ready for a thrill-ride into medieval accounting technology. Stay in touch at and … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">14 rerun: Behave</span></a>
Mar 17, 2017
52. Sanctuary
The term ‘sanctuary cities’ has been in the news a lot in the past few weeks, as places in the USA declare themselves to be havens for undocumented immigrants. Though ‘sanctuary’ has a history of meaning safety for the persecuted, it has an even longer history of meaning something quite different: refuge for criminals. Rosalind … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">52. Sanctuary</span></a>
Mar 07, 2017
51. Under the Covers – part II
Does the available vocabulary for sex leave something to be desired? Namely desire? (And also the ability to use it wthout laughing/dying of embarrassment?) Aiding in the search for a better sex lexicon – sexicon – are Kaitlin Prest of fellow Radiotopia podcast The Heart, and romance novelist Mhairi McFarlane. CONTENT NOTE: this episode contains … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">51. Under the Covers – part II</span></a>
Feb 21, 2017
50. Under the Covers – part I
Escape into the loving embrace of a romance novel – although don’t think you’ll be able to escape gender politics while you’re in there. Bea and Leah Koch, proprietors of America’s sole romance-only bookstore The Ripped Bodice, consider the genre; and publisher Lisa Milton scrolls through the 109-year history of the imprint that epitomises romance … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">50. Under the Covers – part I</span></a>
Feb 08, 2017
49. Bonus 2016
Why is gaslighting ‘gaslighting’? What do bodily fluids have to do with personality traits? Why does ‘cataract’ mean a waterfall and an eye condition? And do doctors really say ‘Stat!’ or is that just in ER? To round off 2016, here’s the bonus edition of The Allusionist, featuring listeners’ etymology requests and extra material from … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">49. Bonus 2016</span></a>
Dec 30, 2016
48. Winterval
There’s a word that has become shorthand for ‘the war on Christmas’ with a side of ‘political correctness gone mad’: Winterval. It began in November 1998. Newspapers furiously accused Birmingham City Council of renaming Christmas when it ran festive events under the name ‘Winterval’. The council’s then-head of events Mike Chubb explains the true meaning … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">48. Winterval</span></a>
Dec 06, 2016
47. The Year Without a Summer
Today: a tale of darkness, gathering storms, and a terrifying creature that resembles a human man… No, nothing topical: it’s The Year Without A Summer, the story of how Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. This piece first appeared on Eric Molinsky’s excellent podcast Imaginary Worlds. Hear all the episodes at For more information, visit … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">47. The Year Without a Summer</span></a>
Nov 21, 2016
46. The State Of It
Each of the 50 states in the USA has its own motto. The motto might be found on the state seal, or the state flag; more often than not, it might be in Latin, or Spanish, or Chinook; it might be a phrase or a single word. And if you think you know what yours … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">46. The State Of It</span></a>
Nov 04, 2016
45. Eponyms II: Name That Disease
If you love eponyms like Roman Mars loves eponyms, I’m afraid physician Isaac Siemens is here to deliver some bad news: medics are ditching them, in favour of terms that a) contain information about what the ailment actually is, and/or b) don’t honour Nazi war criminals. Eponyms are controversial things. The Allusionist is a proud … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">45. Eponyms II: Name That Disease</span></a>
Oct 16, 2016
44: This Is Your Brain On Language
What is your beautiful brain up to as you comprehend language? Cognitive psychologist Jenni Rodd takes a peek. Visit for more information about this topic. Find me at and The Allusionist is a proud member of from
Oct 03, 2016
43. The Key part II: Vestiges
If you don’t have a Rosetta Stone to hand, deciphering extinct languages can be a real puzzle, even though they didn’t intend to be. They didn’t intend to become extinct, either, but such is the life (and death) of languages. NB: there is a CATEGORY B swear word towards the end of this episode. But … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">43. The Key part II: Vestiges</span></a>
Sep 20, 2016
42. The Key part I: Rosetta
Languages die. But if they’re lucky, a thousand-odd years later, someone unearths an artefact that brings them back to life. Laura Welcher of the Rosetta Project shows us the Rosetta Disk, a slice of electroplated nickel three inches in diameter that bears text in 1500 languages for future linguists to decipher. Ilona Regulski of the … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">42. The Key part I: Rosetta</span></a>
Sep 07, 2016
41. Getting Toasty
When you choose to spend the winter in Antarctica, you’ll be prepared for it to be cold. You know that nobody will be leaving or arriving until springtime. And you’re braced for months of darkness. But a few weeks after the last sunset, you might find you can’t even string a sentence together. And even … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">41. Getting Toasty</span></a>
Aug 21, 2016
40. Olympics
On your marks… Get set… GO! It’s the Etymolympics, where the gymnastics should be gymnaked and the hurdles are a bloodbath. Find out more about this episode at Be an Olympic-level champ and express your opinions about the show at Seek me out online at and, and on stage at the … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">40. Olympics</span></a>
Aug 05, 2016
39. Generation What?
Which are you: Millennial, Generation X, Baby Boomer, Silent Generation, an impressively young-looking Arthurian Generation? Or are you an individual who refuses to be labelled? Demographer Neil Howe, author Miranda Sawyer and Megan Tan, the host of Millennial podcast, consider whether the generational names are useful or reductive. Or both. Read more about this episode … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">39. Generation What?</span></a>
Jul 13, 2016
38. Small Talk
“How are you?” “Oh, fine – and you?” “Yeah, not bad. Nice day today, isn’t it?” “Yes, it was a bit chilly this morning, but now the sun’s come out…” [Continue until the lift arrives, or until the end of time.] Small talk is usually not conveying much vital information, nor is it especially interesting. … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">38. Small Talk</span></a>
Jun 25, 2016
12 rerun: Pride
This week seems like a good one to listen again to last year’s episode Pride, about how the word came to be chosen for LGBTQ Pride. Activist and publisher Craig Schoonmaker tells the story. There are full show notes and links to additional material at Find me at and The Allusionist is … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">12 rerun: Pride</span></a>
Jun 14, 2016
37. Brand It
Got a company or a product or a website you need to name? Well, be wary of the potential pitfalls: trademark disputes; pronounceability; being mistaken for a dead body… Name developer Nancy Friedman explains how she helps companies find the right names, and why so many currently end in ‘-ify’. Plus: The Allusionist’s origin story, … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">37. Brand It</span></a>
May 29, 2016
36. Big Lit
‘Classics’ started off meaning Latin and Greek works, then works that smacked of similar, and now – what, exactly? Books that are full of bonnets and dust? Author Kevin Smokler and bookseller Jonathan Main unpick what constitutes a classic, old or new. There’s more about this episode at Announce your favourite classics at … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">36. Big Lit</span></a>
May 17, 2016
35. Word of the Day
Open up a dictionary, and you’ll find the history of human behaviour, the key to your own psychological state, and a lot of fun words about cats.’s Renae Hurlbutt and Jane Solomon lead the way. There’s more about this episode at Visit me at and The Allusionist is a proud member … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">35. Word of the Day</span></a>
May 01, 2016
34. Continental
‘Continent’, as in a land mass, is much more complicated semantically than the bodily function control sense of ‘continent’. Plus: more ‘please’, and how ‘thank you’ is not necessarily an expression of gratitude. TL;DR: trust nothing. There’s more about this episode at Visit me at and The Allusionist is a proud member … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">34. Continental</span></a>
Apr 17, 2016
33. Please
There’s an ocean between Britain and the USA, but an even wider division between each country’s use of a particular word: ‘please’. Linguists Lynne Murphy and Rachele De Felice explain how one nation’s obsequiousness is another nation’s obnoxiousness. There’s more about this episode at Please greet me at and The Allusionist is … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">33. Please</span></a>
Apr 01, 2016
32. Soho
Around the world, there are several places called Soho, getting their names from an acronym/portmanteau-ish composite of local streets or neighbouring areas. But not the original Soho in London. In fact, London’s place names are an etymological hotchpotch: landmarks present and long gone; 1000-year-old vanity projects; and Cockfosters. This is a companion piece to the … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">32. Soho</span></a>
Mar 18, 2016
31. Post-Love
Breaking up is hard to do, and it’s hard to put into appropriate words. Comedian Rosie Wilby seeks a better term for ‘ex’, and family law barrister Nick Allen runs through the vocabulary of divorce. NOTE: this episode is not full of bawdy talk, but there are adult themes and a couple of category B … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">31. Post-Love</span></a>
Mar 05, 2016
30. US Election Lexicon
The 2016 US election isn’t going away anytime soon, so let’s seek refuge in etymology. Consider the linguistically appropriate age of a senator, and whether Congress should get sexy. And we revisit the UK Election Lexicon – – for the origin of words like ‘campaign’, ‘ballot’, ‘democracy’, ‘poll’, ‘debate’ and ‘argue’. There’s more about … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">30. US Election Lexicon</span></a>
Feb 17, 2016
29. WLTM part II
You’re looking for your perfect partner, but dating sites keep matching you with duds. So what do you do? Conduct an elaborate linguistic experiment, of course! At least, that was futurist Amy Webb’s response to the situation. But did it work? For full show notes and links, visit Hear WLTM part I at … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">29. WLTM part II</span></a>
Feb 06, 2016
28. WLTM part I
Your online dating profile is the latest spin on a 300-year-old tradition of advertising yourself in order to find a spouse, a sexual partner, or someone to take care of your pigs. Francesca Beauman, author of Shapely Ankle Preferr’d: A History of the Lonely Hearts Ad, digs into lonely hearts ads to see how British … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">28. WLTM part I</span></a>
Jan 28, 2016
27. Bonus 2015
For the last episode of 2015, here’s a melange of etymologies requested by listeners, and anecdotes there wasn’t room for in the show earlier this year. We’ve got Klingon! Acid trips! The plural of ‘octopus’! An unwitting cameo from Cliff Richard! Warning: this episode contains references to drugs, sex and genitals, plus some mild swears … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">27. Bonus 2015</span></a>
Dec 23, 2015
26. Xmas Man
CONTENT WARNING: Be wary of listening to this episode around young children, as there may be life spoilers. Historian Greg Jenner traces the origins of that mythical beardy man who turns up in December with gifts. Helen Zaltzman also ensures her permanent removal from everybody’s Christmas card lists. Read more about this episode at … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">26. Xmas Man</span></a>
Dec 02, 2015
25. Toki Pona
There’s a language which is said to be the smallest language in the world. It has around 123 words, five vowels, nine consonants, and apparently you can become fluent in it with around 30 hours’ study. It was invented by linguist Sonja Lang in 2001, and it’s called Toki Pona. And fellow Radiotopian Nate DiMeo, … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">25. Toki Pona</span></a>
Nov 19, 2015
24. Spill Your Guts
It’s cathartic; it’s a useful historical record; and it might help you behave better on public transport. Neil Katcher and Dave Nadelberg from Mortified discuss the art and practice of keeping a diary. Find the Mortified podcast, stage shows, documentary, TV series and books at Roman Mars also stops by to talk about the … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">24. Spill Your Guts</span></a>
Nov 04, 2015
23. Criminallusionist
Phoebe Judge and Lauren Spohrer from the podcast Criminal stop by to talk about the linguistic challenges of crime reporting. They also share their episode ‘Pants on Fire’, about lying. It’s an extremely useful handbook if you fancy becoming either a human polygraph, or an excellent liar. Radiotopia needs your support. Become a donor at … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">23. Criminallusionist</span></a>
Oct 29, 2015
22. Vocables
La la la, dum di di dum, a wop bop a loo bop a wop bom bom – why are songs riddled with non-words masquerading as words? Hrishikesh Hirway from Song Exploder and songwriter Tony Hazzard explain. Read more about this episode at Say hello at and, and find Song Exploder at … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">22. Vocables</span></a>
Oct 21, 2015
21. Eponyms I: The Ballad of Bic and Biro
Naming something after yourself: a grand display of egomania, or the humble willingness to be overshadowed by your own product? Stationery expert James Ward tells the tale of the people who begat the eponymous ballpoint pens Bic and Biro, because, according to 99% Invisible’s Roman Mars, “When it comes to word origins, an eponym is … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">21. Eponyms I: The Ballad of Bic and Biro</span></a>
Oct 14, 2015
20. Baby Talk
Why do we all sound like idiots when we talk to babies? Don’t be embarrassed, we’re helping them acquire language. Child psychologist Ben Jeffes explains. There is more about this episode at Say hello at and The Allusionist is a proud member of for
Oct 07, 2015
19. Architecting About Dance
“Talking about music is like dancing about architecture” is a problematic statement: not just because nobody can agree on who came up with it, but because dancing about architecture doesn’t seem particularly far-fetched. Talking about dance, however – that’s really difficult. How do you put a wordless form of communication into words? Audio describer Alice … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">19. Architecting About Dance</span></a>
Sep 24, 2015
18. Fix part II
The messiness of English is the price of its success. It is the most widely spoken language in the world, geographically, being an official language in 88 different countries, and there are countless different versions of it all over the world. With so many speakers in so many places, it would be impossible to establish … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">18. Fix part II</span></a>
Sep 09, 2015
17. Fix part I
The English language is a mess. And if you don’t like it, what are you going to do about it – fix it? Good luck with that. In the early 18th century, a movement of grammarians and authors wanted to set up an official authority to regulate English, like French had in the Academie Francaise. … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">17. Fix part I</span></a>
Aug 28, 2015
16. Word Play
Words are all over the place. So how do you turn them into fun games? Here to show the way is Leslie Scott, founder of Oxford Games and inventor of more than forty games – including word games such as Ex Libris, Anagram and Flummoxed, and the non-word game Jenga. There is more about this … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">16. Word Play</span></a>
Aug 12, 2015
15. Step Away
‘Step-‘, as in stepparents or stepchildren, originated in grief. Family structures have evolved, but are stepmothers now so tainted by fairytale associations with the word ‘wicked’ that we need new terminology? Lore’s Aaron Mahnke stops by to describe the lovelessness, literary tropes and life expectancy around ‘step-‘. There is more about this episode at … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">15. Step Away</span></a>
Jul 29, 2015
14. Behave
Sometimes words can become your worst enemy. Clinical psychologist Jane Gregory tells how to defuse their power. There’s more about this episode at This episode concerns mental health, and the discussion nudges some topics which may not be comfortable for everybody. Stay in touch! Tweet @allusionistshow, and convene at The Allusionist is a … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">14. Behave</span></a>
Jul 01, 2015
13. Mixed Emojions
Emoji allow communication without words. Could emoji be the universal language of the 21st century? Matt Gray and Tom Scott, founders of the emoji-only messaging platform, talk through the pitfalls; and History Today’s Dr Kate Wiles finds the 500- and 5,000-year-old precedents for emoji. CONTENT WARNING: this episode contains one category B swear word, … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">13. Mixed Emojions</span></a>
Jun 17, 2015
12. Pride
“The poison is shame. The antidote is pride.” It’s June; the President of the USA has officially designated it LGBT Pride Month, and there’ll be Pride events around the world. But how did the word ‘pride’ came to be the banner word for demonstrations and celebrations of LGBT rights and culture? There’s more about this … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">12. Pride</span></a>
Jun 03, 2015
11. Brunchtime
What does brunch have to do with Lewis Carroll? Fall down the rabbit hole of brunch semantics with Dan Pashman of the Sporkful podcast There’s more about this episode at Tweet @allusionistshow, and convene at The Allusionist is a proud member of for
May 20, 2015
10. Election Lexicon
On the eve of the 2015 General Election in the UK, take a jaunt through the etymology of election-related words. Find out why casting a vote should be more like basketball, and why polling is hairy. There’s more about this episode at Tweet @allusionistshow, and convene at Also please air your thoughts about … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">10. Election Lexicon</span></a>
May 06, 2015
9. The Space Between
I know this is a show about words, but forget the words for a moment; look at the spaces between the words. Without the spaces, the words would be nigh incomprehensible. Dr Kate Wiles explains the history of the space. Visit to find out more about this episode. Tweet @allusionistshow, and convene at … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">9. The Space Between</span></a>
Apr 22, 2015
8. Crosswords
Cryptic crosswords: delightful brain exercise, or the infernal taunting of the incomprehensible? Either way, crossword setter John Feetenby explains how they’re made and how to solve them. Visit to find out more about this episode. Tweet @allusionistshow, and convene at Also please give us your thoughts about podcasts at The Allusionist is … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">8. Crosswords</span></a>
Apr 08, 2015
7. Mountweazel
You’d think you could trust dictionaries, but it turns out, they are riddled with LIES. Visit to find out more about this episode. Tweet @allusionistshow, and convene at Also please give us your thoughts about podcasts at The Allusionist is a proud member of for
Mar 25, 2015
6. The Writing On The Wall
Those words on museum walls that you can’t be bothered to read? They’re more important than you think… Exhibition-maker Rachel Souhami explains why. Visit to find out more about this episode. Tweet @allusionistshow, and convene at The Allusionist is a proud member of for
Mar 11, 2015
5. Latin Lives!
Every week since September 1989, a radio station in Finland has broadcast a weekly news bulletin…in Latin. WHY? Let’s find out! Visit to find out more about this episode. Tweet @allusionistshow, and convene at The Allusionist is a proud member of for
Feb 25, 2015
4. Detonating the C-Bomb
WARNING: this episode contains lots of swearing and words which some of you may find offensive. If, however, you love offensive words, you will enjoy this episode, which is all about how the C-word doesn’t deserve to be the pariah of cusses. Visit to find out more about this episode. Tweet @allusionistshow, and convene … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">4. Detonating the C-Bomb</span></a>
Feb 11, 2015
3. Going Viral
Remember when ‘viral’ used to only mean something bad, IE something that would make you ill or destroy your computer? How things have changed. Tom Phillips from Buzzfeed UK explains the language they choose to make content go viral. Visit to find out more about this episode. Tweet @allusionistshow, and convene at The … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">3. Going Viral</span></a>
Jan 28, 2015
2. Bosom Holder
There are many synonyms for ‘underwear’. There are many synonyms for the body parts you keep in your underwear. But there’s only one word for ‘bra’. Visit to find out more about this episode. Tweet @allusionistshow, and convene at Subscribe on iTunes at The Allusionist is a proud member of for … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">2. Bosom Holder</span></a>
Jan 14, 2015
1. Ban The Pun.
In late 2014, China announced it was to ban puns. Helen Zaltzman wishes she could ban puns in her own family. Warning: this episode features some hideous incidences of wordplay. Visit to find out more about this episode. Tweet @allusionistshow, and convene at Subscribe on iTunes Subscribe on iTunes at The … <a href="" class="more-link">Continue reading <span class="screen-reader-text">1. Ban The Pun.</span></a>
Jan 14, 2015