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The Allusionist


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




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 explains how swearing can be beneficial to your physical health and emotional wellbeing, while Matt Fidler of Very Bad Words gives some tips to ensure you swear properly to optimise the positive effects. Find … Continue reading 74. Take A Swear Pill


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 … Continue reading 73. Supername!


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 … Continue reading 72. Hey


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 … Continue reading 71. Triumph/Trumpet/Top/Fart


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, … Continue reading 70. Bonus 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 … Continue reading 69. How the Dickens stole Christmas


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 … Continue reading 68. Curse Soup


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 … Continue reading 67. Open Me part II


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 … Continue reading 66. Open Me part I


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?


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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