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Linguistic adventures with Helen Zaltzman for The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia, from PRX, a curated network of extraordinary, story-driven shows. Learn more at

Linguistic adventures with Helen Zaltzman for The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia, from PRX, a curated network of extraordinary, story-driven shows. Learn more at
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Linguistic adventures with Helen Zaltzman for The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia, from PRX, a curated network of extraordinary, story-driven shows. Learn more at




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 … Continue reading 65. Eponyms III: Who’s That Guy?

Duration: 00:20:30

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 … Continue reading 64. Technobabble

Duration: 00:22:28

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 … Continue reading 63. Evolution of Accents

Duration: 00:25:48

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, … Continue reading 62. In Crypt, Decrypt

Duration: 00:41:04

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 … Continue reading 61. In Your Hand

Duration: 00:21:50

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 … Continue reading 60. Zillions

Duration: 00:30:41

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 … Continue reading 59. One To Another

Duration: 00:20:53

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 … Continue reading 58. Eclipse

Duration: 00:32:07

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 … Continue reading 57. AD/BC

Duration: 00:19:37

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 … Continue reading 56. Joins

Duration: 00:27:06

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 … Continue reading 55. Namaste

Duration: 00:25:28

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 … Continue reading 54. The Authority

Duration: 00:21:48

53. The Away Team

Propaganda and migration specialist Emma Briant explains the dangers of conflating and misusing terms like ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seeker’, while British/Asian/but kinda not author Nikesh Shukla wonders where he’s from – where he is really from. There’s more about this episode at Stay in touch at and The Allusionist is a proud … Continue reading 53. The Away Team

Duration: 00:18:33

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 … Continue reading 52. Sanctuary

Duration: 00:18:46

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 … Continue reading 51. Under the Covers – part II

Duration: 00:18:09

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 … Continue reading 50. Under the Covers – part I

Duration: 00:19:29

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 … Continue reading 49. Bonus 2016

Duration: 00:20:12

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 … Continue reading 48. Winterval

Duration: 00:08:02

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, which first appeared on Eric Molinsky’s excellent podcast Imaginary Worlds. Hear all the episodes at For more information, visit Find … Continue reading 47. The Year Without a Summer

Duration: 00:31:14

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 … Continue reading 46. The State Of It

Duration: 00:22:11

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