The Allusionist

Helen Zaltzman for Radiotopia

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

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65. Eponyms III: Who’s That Guy?

22:49 | Oct 14th, 2017

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 epi...Show More

59. One To Another

0:00 | Jun 30th, 2017

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 ...Show More

Imaginary Advice: S.E.I.N.F.E.L.D.

27:40 | Jun 29th, 2018

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 Adv...Show More

78. Oot in the Open

26:21 | May 21st, 2018

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 t...Show More

68. Curse Soup

17:26 | Nov 25th, 2017

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 fing...Show More

64. Technobabble

24:20 | Sep 30th, 2017

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 relat...Show More

63. Evolution of Accents

25:49 | Sep 15th, 2017

“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 H...Show More

62. In Crypt, Decrypt

30:43 | Sep 2nd, 2017

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 ...Show More

55. Namaste

20:07 | May 5th, 2017

“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 ...Show More

54. The Authority

16:54 | Apr 14th, 2017

“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 expl...Show More

97. The Future is Now?

15:45 | Apr 11th

“There are two ways to say ‘The future is now’: you can say it optimistically, like, ‘The future is now! Isn't that cool?’ Or you could be like, ‘The future is now, and we're totally screwed.’” Rose Eveleth, of the future-envisioning podcast Flash Fo...Show More

96. Trust

18:49 | Mar 26th

“Trust isn't a brand that you should use. It's a social glue that, when it breaks down, has really huge consequences to our lives.” Trust expert and author Rachel Botsman explains why we need to protect this word that has remained steadfast throughou...Show More

95. Verisimilitude

28:17 | Mar 11th

When you’re watching a fantasy or science fiction show, and the characters are speaking a language that does not exist in this world but sounds like it could - that doesn’t happen by accident, or improvisation. A lot - a LOT! - of work goes into inve...Show More

94. Harsh Realm

27:24 | Feb 22nd

On 15 November 1992, the New York Times printed a ‘Lexicon of Grunge’, a list of slang terms from the Seattle music scene. ‘Harsh realm’ = bummer. ‘Wack slacks’ = old ripped jeans. ‘Swingin’ on the flippity-flop’ = hanging out. Not familiar with any...Show More

93. Gossip

18:18 | Feb 9th

‘Idle’, ‘trivial’, ‘scurrilous’: the word ‘gossip’ is often accompanied by uncomplimentary adjectives. But don’t dismiss it; from childbirth to Hollywood to political analysis to whisper networks, gossip may be more useful and serious than you realis...Show More

92. To Err Is Human

18:07 | Jan 24th

If you wince when you hear someone say “a whole nother level”, “hone in on” or “right from the gecko”, here’s some bad news: you might have to get used to it. The English language is full of words and expressions that were mistakes that stuck around....Show More

Extra special QUIZ!

16:58 | Dec 18th, 2018

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 ...Show More

91. Bonus 2018

20:34 | Dec 16th, 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...Show More

90. Dear Santa

21:39 | Nov 30th, 2018

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 ab...Show More

89. WPM

19:28 | Nov 17th, 2018

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 Aus...Show More

88. Name Changers

29:42 | Nov 4th, 2018

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....Show More

87. Name v. Law

32:30 | Oct 22nd, 2018

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,...Show More

86. Name Therapy

29:52 | Oct 8th, 2018

“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 ...Show More

85. Skin Story

20:25 | Sep 23rd, 2018

“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 ...Show More

84. Trammels

22:49 | Sep 8th, 2018

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 y...Show More

83. Yes, As In

28:57 | Aug 26th, 2018

“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 s...Show More

82. A Novel Remedy

24:52 | Aug 13th, 2018

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 po...Show More

81. Shark Week

27:41 | Jul 28th, 2018

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 ...Show More

80. Warm Front

18:35 | Jun 17th, 2018

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 la...Show More

79. Queer

28:39 | Jun 3rd, 2018

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...Show More

42+43. Survival: The Key rerun

27:10 | May 5th, 2018

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 an...Show More

77. Survival part 1: Second Home

27:59 | Apr 21st, 2018

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 ...Show More

76. Across the Pond

25:43 | Apr 7th, 2018

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...Show More

75. Ear Hustling

17:53 | Mar 23rd, 2018

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 http://theallusioni...Show More

74. Take A Swear Pill

28:23 | Mar 9th, 2018

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 Mat...Show More

73. Supername!

21:48 | Feb 24th, 2018

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 formu...Show More

72. Hey

23:11 | Feb 9th, 2018

“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, ...Show More

71. Triumph/Trumpet/Top/Fart

20:23 | Jan 26th, 2018

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...Show More

70. Bonus 2017

21:55 | Dec 23rd, 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 ...Show More

69. How the Dickens stole Christmas

30:35 | Dec 9th, 2017

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 ...Show More

67. Open Me part II

30:10 | Nov 10th, 2017

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 ...Show More

66. Open Me part I

25:32 | Oct 27th, 2017

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 Radioto...Show More

61. In Your Hand

15:20 | Aug 19th, 2017

“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 pr...Show More

60. Zillions

21:33 | Aug 5th, 2017

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’...Show More

58. Eclipse

0:00 | Jun 16th, 2017

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 bloo...Show More

57. AD/BC

22:13 | Jun 2nd, 2017

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 o...Show More

56. Joins

0:00 | May 19th, 2017

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 an...Show More

53. The Away Team

18:33 | Apr 1st, 2017

“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...Show More

14 rerun: Behave

17:55 | Mar 17th, 2017

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 mat...Show More

52. Sanctuary

18:47 | Mar 7th, 2017

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 long...Show More

51. Under the Covers – part II

18:09 | Feb 21st, 2017

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 Radioto...Show More

50. Under the Covers – part I

19:30 | Feb 8th, 2017

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; an...Show More

49. Bonus 2016

20:13 | Dec 30th, 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 editio...Show More

48. Winterval

15:13 | Dec 6th, 2016

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 ...Show More

47. The Year Without a Summer

22:46 | Nov 21st, 2016

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 exc...Show More

46. The State Of It

22:12 | Nov 4th, 2016

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 wha...Show More

45. Eponyms II: Name That Disease

20:47 | Oct 16th, 2016

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 honou...Show More

44: This Is Your Brain On Language

15:01 | Oct 3rd, 2016

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 http://faceb...Show More

43. The Key part II: Vestiges

17:10 | Sep 20th, 2016

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 ...Show More

42. The Key part I: Rosetta

16:27 | Sep 7th, 2016

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...Show More

41. Getting Toasty

19:13 | Aug 21st, 2016

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 fin...Show More

40. Olympics

12:04 | Aug 5th, 2016

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 ab...Show More

39. Generation What?

16:30 | Jul 13th, 2016

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 ...Show More

38. Small Talk

15:01 | Jun 25th, 2016

“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...Show More

12 rerun: Pride

15:07 | Jun 14th, 2016

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 a...Show More

37. Brand It

21:58 | May 29th, 2016

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 nam...Show More

36. Big Lit

16:03 | May 17th, 2016

‘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 ne...Show More

35. Word of the Day

14:52 | May 1st, 2016

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 http:/...Show More

34. Continental

16:21 | Apr 17th, 2016

‘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...Show More

33. Please

17:54 | Apr 1st, 2016

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...Show More

32. Soho

13:27 | Mar 18th, 2016

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 hotch...Show More

31. Post-Love

18:29 | Mar 5th, 2016

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 t...Show More