Cover art for podcast The Allusionist

The Allusionist

210 EpisodesProduced by Helen ZaltzmanWebsite

Adventures in language with Helen Zaltzman.

add rating

episodes iconAll Episodes

Tranquillusionist: Person In Scene

February 26th, 2024


This is the Tranquillusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, soothe your brain by saying a load of words that don’t really mean very much, to give you …


February 22nd, 2024


An important message from RadioPublic

189. Mouthful of Fortune

February 10th, 2024


At Lunar New Year, certain foods are particularly lucky to eat. Why? Because in Chinese, their names are puns on fortunate things. Damn, maybe …

188. Lipread

January 28th, 2024


Lipreading has been in the news this month, thanks to gossip-stoking mouth movements at the Golden Globes that the amateur lipreaders of The Internet …

187. Bonus 2023

December 24th, 2023


It's our annual end of year parade of all the extra good stuff this year's podguests talked about, including a mythical disappearing island, geese, human dictionaries, the dubious history of the Body Mass Index, …

186. Ravels

December 12th, 2023


We’ve got knitting! We’ve got eponyms!! We’ve got knitting eponyms!!! Which come with a whole load of battles, f-boys, duels, baseball, espionage, …

185. Gems and Patties

November 20th, 2023


We’re returning to the theme of renaming, for two food-related renamings: the first one that mostly happened, the second that mostly did not - but in a good way.

Dr Erin Pritchard persuaded a British supermarket to …

184. Misophonia

November 6th, 2023


The word 'misophonia' describes a condition that statistically, 20 per cent of you have: an extreme reaction to certain sounds. "For me, it was a relief to have a word for what I'd been experiencing," says Dr Jane …

Apple Fest!

October 22nd, 2023


All aboard, we're off to the 2023 Apple Festival at the University of British Columbia, to taste some apples and, most importantly, enjoy some apple …

183. Timucua

October 9th, 2023


When Spanish missionaries arrived in what is now called Florida, there were 100,000-200,000 Timucua people in the region. Just two centuries later, there were fewer than 100. Soon, with all the people who spoke it dead, …

182. Siblings of Chaos

September 24th, 2023


Lexicographer, author and Dictionary Corner resident Susie Dent has been studying words to make us feel happy. She brings etymologies concerning …

181. Cairns

September 13th, 2023


There's an abiding myth that the landmark dictionaries are the work of one man, in a dusty paper-filled garrett tirelessly working away singlehandedly. But really it took a village: behind every Big Daddy of …

180. Project ENABLE

August 25th, 2023


Sterling Martin was in grad school, studying C. elegans worms, when COVID19 hit and suddenly he found himself in lexicography, as part of a team …

179. Andy Quiz

August 12th, 2023


It's the annual etymology quizlusionist! I’m on a family holiday for the first time since 1988, so enlisted my brother Andy Zaltzman of the Bugle …

178. Uranus

June 24th, 2023


Have you ever wondered why the planets in our solar system are all named after Roman deities, except two of them? One of those exceptions is Earth. …

Tranquillusionist: Gay Animals

June 9th, 2023


This is the Tranquillusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, say a load of words which aren’t really about anything, so that your brain gets a little gentle diversion from thinking and/or feeling. Today: a list of gay …

177. Fat part 2

May 25th, 2023


“The starting point is, and the research questions are all framed by: 'We know it's terrible to be fat, but how terrible is it?' Not: 'What would it …

176. Fat part 1

May 12th, 2023


It should just be an accurate descriptor of my body, but the word 'fat' has shaped so much more of my life, and our society. "There is this whole set …

175. Eurovision part 2

April 21st, 2023


Oh, you thought the Eurovision Song Contest was about songs? Or a fun international TV event that brings people together in lots of different countries? Or watching extremely vigorous dance numbers? OK, it is, but it's …

174. Eurovision part 1

April 7th, 2023


There aren't many multilingual, multinational television shows that have been running for nearly seven decades. But what makes the Eurovision Song …

173. Death

March 24th, 2023


"You can't redead the dead by you saying something shit," says Cariad Lloyd of Griefcast and author of You Are Not Alone; nevertheless when you're bereaved, people still are usually so nervous to say the wrong thing …

172. A Brief History of Brazilian Portuguese

March 10th, 2023


"The myths, or the received wisdom, about Portuguese language in Brazil is that, of course we know we speak a very different version of the language, but this has always been explained to us as maybe perhaps a defect of …

171. Supplantation

February 24th, 2023


Last episode, I mentioned that in London, Ontario, in 2019 a 9-year-old named Lyla Wheeler had launched a petition to rename her street, currently …

170. Actively Passive

February 10th, 2023


Over the past few years, numerous products and places with the word 'plantation' in their names have rebranded. As for the word 'plantation' itself, architect and writer Kennedy Whiters of advocates …

169. The Box

January 27th, 2023


Erwin Schrödinger is one of the "fathers of quantum mechanics". He also sexually abused children. Trinity College Dublin recently denamed a lecture …

168. Debuts

January 13th, 2023


There’s been a recurring theme on the show over the years, of filling gaps in language, removing stigma and bias, finding better ways to express ourselves and talk about our feelings and our bodies. Today Kalle …

167. Bonus 2022

December 17th, 2022


What do the hippocampus, homophones, Little Women, worrying and egg hacks have in common? They all star in the 2022 parade of Allusionist bonus bits! This year's guests provide some extra fascinating facts, thoughts and …

166. Fiona part 2

December 5th, 2022


“I don't think that anyone should come away from this conversation not wanting to use the name Fiona. I think this is a beautiful and rich history. …

165. Fiona part 1

November 22nd, 2022


A lot of people assume that Fiona is a very old Scottish name, but the first known Scottish Fiona is from the 1890s: Fiona Macleod, the enormously …

164. Emergency

November 7th, 2022


When is a war not a war? When the British Empire called it an 'emergency' so they didn't have to abide by wartime rules or lose their insurance …

163. Rhino Borked Guy

October 21st, 2022


Provoked by current events, we've got three political eponyms for turmoiled times. Get ready for explosives, presidential pigs, Supreme Court …

162. Self-Help

October 8th, 2022


Self-help is a multibillion dollar genre of books, and Kristen Meinzer and Jolenta Greenberg of By the Book podcast have lived by the advice of more …

161. Sentiment

September 24th, 2022


Empathy and kindness can be noble concepts in themselves, but as terms are thrown around enough to have become buzzwords, and in the process lose …

160. Coward

September 9th, 2022


“Anxiety is the parrot sidekick that rides on my shoulder and occasionally squawks warnings in my ear,” says Tim Clare, poet and podcaster and author …

159. Bufflusionist

August 20th, 2022


Grab your stake and crucifix pendant, we're going vampire-hunting! Well, vampire-etymology-hunting. The podcast Buffering the Vampire Slayer, which …

158. Creature Quiz

August 5th, 2022


There's lots of fun etymology of creatures and a lot of fun etymology derived from creatures, and now it is gathered into this fun playalong quiz …

Tranquillusionist: Australia's Big Things

July 19th, 2022


This is the Tranquillusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, say a load of deliberately boring words to distract your interior monologue from whatever …

157. Queerbaiting

June 25th, 2022


The term 'queerbaiting' has evolved from meaning entrapment to marketing ploy to drawing "queer audiences into a piece of media that has no intention …

156. Rainbow Washing

June 11th, 2022


From whitewash (the paint) we got whitewashing (the covering up of misdeeds) and from there greenwashing, redwashing, bluewashing, purplewashing, pinkwashing - and now rainbow washing, where companies will put Pride …

155. The Tiffany Problem

May 27th, 2022


The name Tiffany has been around for some 800 years. But you can't name a character in a historical novel 'Tiffany', because people don't believe the …

154. Objectivity

May 14th, 2022


Couple of easy straightforward questions for us to chew on: 1. What is ‘objectivity’ supposed to mean? And 2. does it exist? Lewis Raven Wallace, a journalist and audiomaker fired from his public radio job over his blog …

153. In Character

April 18th, 2022


Chinese is one of the oldest still-spoken languages in the world. But when technologies arrived like telegraphy and computing, designed with the …

152. Asperger

April 3rd, 2022


Hans Asperger would have been merely "a footnote in the history of autism", so why did he get to be the eponym in Asperger's syndrome? Because along …

152. Asperger - music-free version

April 3rd, 2022


Hans Asperger would have been merely "a footnote in the history of autism", so why did he get to be the eponym in Asperger's syndrome? Because along …

151. The Bee's Knees

March 18th, 2022


Bad hats, cat's pyjamas, banting, goops, creatures, and playing possum - what WERE people going on about during the Golden Age of detective fiction? …

150. The Egg's Warning

March 5th, 2022


"Warning: read and keep," says the piece of paper inside Kinder Surprise Eggs, in 34 languages; yet most people do neither thing. But sociologist …

149. Complex PTSD

February 19th, 2022


Complex PTSD is different to PTSD, but there's not that much understanding of it as its own condition - which was not much help to Stephanie Foo when she was diagnosed with it in 2018. We talk about facing trauma rather …

148. Bonus 2021

December 23rd, 2021


I've been saving them up all year, and now it's time for the annual selection box of Bonus Bits! Things this year's guests said that couldn't fit …

147. Survival: Today, Tomorrow part 2

December 7th, 2021


"It's really good if we can get the changes through here - that can be an inspiration for other other countries or other places in the world," says Þorbjörg Þorvaldsdóttir, chair of Samtökin ’78, the national queer …

146. Survival: Today, Tomorrow part 1

November 24th, 2021


The Icelandic language has remained so stable over the centuries, speakers can read manuscripts from 900 years ago without too much trouble. And when they need a new word for more recent concepts, there are committees …

145. Parents

November 7th, 2021


When you're trans and pregnant, some of the vocabulary of pregnancy, birth and parenting might not fit you. In fact, some of it might not even work …

144. Aro Ace

October 26th, 2021


The word 'asexual' has been used by humans describing themselves for several decades; 'aromantic' is newer. Both words enable people to voice identities that were unacknowledged for centuries, to find each other and …

143. Hedge Rider

October 13th, 2021


Today it's the etymologies you requested! And a few you didn't! We've got witches, wizards, warlocks; conjurers and cloves; wood shavings, nice gone …

142. Zero

September 25th, 2021


Did any number cause as much trouble as zero? It stranded ships; it scrambles the brains of mathematicians, calendar users and computers; it even got itself banned in Florence. Math(s) communicator and drag queen Kyne

141. Food Quiz

September 10th, 2021


Quiz time! Samin Nosrat and Hrishikesh Hirway of Home Cooking podcast join to deliver questions about food etymology, as well as what are the two …

140. Num8er5

August 30th, 2021


We use verbal numbers and we use numerals - why do we need both? Why do we have the ones we have? What happened to Roman numerals? And what's loserish about the fiftieth Super Bowl? Stephen Chrisomalis, professor of …

Tranquillusionist: 282 Salads

August 14th, 2021


This is the Tranquillusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, read all the salads from the 1950 recipe book 282 Ways of Making a Salad, with Favourite Recipes by British and American Personalities and Stars by Bebe …

139 Ladybird Ladybug

July 12th, 2021


They're not ladies and they're not birds; they're not even technically bugs! But that's not the most surprising thing about ladybirds/ladybugs and their brilliant variety of names. Tamsin Majerus AKA Dr Ladybird

138. Mind My Mind

June 27th, 2021


Crazy, insane, nuts, mad, bonkers, psycho, schizo, OCD - casual vocabulary is strewn with mental health terms, but perhaps shouldn't be?

137. Dude

June 10th, 2021


Exclamation; sign of agreement OR disapproval; gendered, but circumstantially gender-neutral; term of endearment: 'dude' can do it all! But its …

136. Misogynoir

May 28th, 2021


“It's hard to address something if you can't actually name what it is,” says Moya Bailey, who coined a term that enables people to discuss a specific combination of racism and sexism: misogynoir.

Find Moya Bailey's work …

135. SOS

May 14th, 2021


SOS is a really versatile distress call. You can shout it; you can tap it out in Morse code; you can honk it on a horn; you can signal it with flashes of light; you can spell it out on the beach with debris from your …


April 23rd, 2021


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 …

134. Lacuna

April 10th, 2021


If you were in Brazil during the military dictatorship of 1964-1985, tried to bake a cake from a recipe in the newspaper, and were served with a …

133. Cake is Mighter than the Sword

March 27th, 2021


What to do to stick it to the powers that be? Send your message through something they really care about: cake.

In Buenos Aires, local tour guides Madi Lang and Juan Palacios introduce me to priest's balls and little …

132. Additions and Losses

March 12th, 2021


"Sometimes I've heard people talk about losing a child and people say it's like losing a limb. And as someone who's lost both things, I just want to say, the realities are very different." Musician and writer Christa …

131. Podlingual

February 25th, 2021


In their podcasts Mija and Moonface, Lory Martinez and James Kim create autobiographical fiction in multiple languages. 

There are a few swears in …

130. Valentine

February 14th, 2021


St Valentine's name may nowadays be all over the romance-related merch for 14 February, but he was also the patron saint of beekeepers, epilepsy and …

129. Sorry

January 31st, 2021


Apologies are such important verbal transactions. So why are so many of them soooo bad? Susan McCarthy and Marjorie Ingall from SorryWatch and Laura …

128. Bonus 2020

December 24th, 2020


To round off the year, here are some choice cuts from the Allusionist vault of interesting things that guests said that there wasn’t room for in the …

127. A Festive Hit for 2020

December 14th, 2020


The usual canon of Christmas songs may not really fit people's moods in this year 2020, when I'm not sure a lot of us are feeling all that holly …

126. Survival: Custodians of the Languages

November 28th, 2020


In Australia, there were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of languages. Until English arrived.

Rudi Bremer and Karina Lester talk about the destruction and revival of indigenous Australian languages.

Content note: this …

125. Swearalong Quiz

November 10th, 2020


Fill your lungs and get ready to shout out some profane answers: it’s the Swearlusionist Swearalong Quiz! Every answer is a swear word. Swearing, as we know, is good for your health, plus helps vent stress, and you’ll …

124. Nightmare

October 25th, 2020


This is the Alloooooooooosionist, in which we learn about the etymology of some scary words for Halloween, with the help of Paul Bae of The Black …

123. Celebrity

October 10th, 2020


Celebrity used to mean a solemn occasion; X factor was algebraic; and fame was a huge terrifying Godzilla-like beast with many many tongues.

Here to …

122. Ghostwriter

September 28th, 2020


The word for ‘ghostwriter’ in French is a racist slur. How did THAT come about? And what word could French-speakers use instead? Ngofeen Mputubwele …

121. No Title

September 14th, 2020


In 2014, a seemingly trivial and boring incident at the bank propelled me down a linguistic road via medieval werewolves, Ms Marvel and confusingly …

Tranquillusionist: Home and Garden

August 28th, 2020


This is the Tranquillusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, quell anxiety and calm brain frenzies by replacing your interior monologue with words …

The Away Team redux

August 18th, 2020


After yet another spell of the British press and politicians using very dehumanising and derogatory rhetoric about migrants, I felt it necessary to …

120. Shine Theory

July 30th, 2020


It’s great when you coin a phrase that really resonates with people, right? Until they start using it for businesses and ventures that are at odds with the meaning of it… Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, hosts of the …

119. Blood Is Not Water

July 14th, 2020


The Yiddish word for ‘black’ is, in certain uses, a slur. So Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell, Arun Viswanath and Jonah Boyarin teamed up to translate Black Lives Matter without it.

Find out more about this episode, the …

118. Survival: Bequest

July 3rd, 2020


When the Europeans arrived in Aotearoa New Zealand, as well as guns, stoats and Christianity, they brought ideas of cisgender monogamous heterosexuality that were imposed upon the Māori people as if there had never been …

117. Many Ways At Once

June 15th, 2020


The Scots language didn’t have much of an LGBTQ+ lexicon. So writer and performer Dr Harry Josephine Giles decided to create one.

Find out more about this episode, the subject matter and the interviewees, at

116. My Dad Excavated A Porno

June 3rd, 2020


The word ‘pornography’ arrived in English in the 1840s so upper class male archaeologists could talk about the sexual art they found in Pompeii …

115. Keep Calm and

May 16th, 2020


Twenty years ago, a 1939 poster printed by the British government with the words ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ turned up in a second-hand bookshop in Northern England. And lo! A decor trend was born: teatowels, T-shirts, …

Tranquillusionist: Punchlines

April 13th, 2020


This is the Tranquillusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, in the interests of temporarily trying to stop that feeling where you think your brain is …

Tranquillusionist: Best In Show

April 4th, 2020


This is the Tranquillusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, for the purposes of calming a frazzled brain, read the winners of Best In Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

This episode resides at

Tranquillusionist: Nmiigea

March 22nd, 2020


This is the Tranquillusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, for the purposes of quelling anxiety and stress and sleeplessness, read the lyrics to ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon, with the words arranged in reverse alphabetical …

Tranquillusionist: Your Soothing Words

March 17th, 2020


We interrupt the Allusionist break to bring an emergency calming episode. I asked you listeners which words you find soothing. Here they are. Put this episode on a loop to help you sleep; play it to quell your inner …

114. Alarm Bells

February 24th, 2020


As the climate changes, so does the vocabulary around it - to amplify concern, to dampen concern, to serve corporate concerns… It is linguistically …

113. Zaltzology

January 24th, 2020


Today’s episode is something a bit different to usual. A few months ago, I was a guest on the podcast Ologies, a terrific show where the very funny …

112. Quiz 2019

December 24th, 2019


For your last Allusionist of 2019, here is a quiz all about words for you to play along with as you listen. Get a pen and paper to jot down your answers, or there’s an interactive answer form all ready for you at …

Allusionist special: Podcast Podcast

December 16th, 2019


Here’s a special episode about the word that brought us all together… aaand a lot of you hate it.

This piece was recorded in front of a live …

111. Engraving part 2: Precious

December 16th, 2019


Words engraved into metal are intended to last, though you don’t know who in the future is going to be reading them - your grandchildren wearing your …

110. Engraving part 1: Epitaph

November 26th, 2019


When Dave Nadelberg of Mortified used to visit his mother’s grave, he would look around at the nearby gravestones and see similar - or even the exact …

109. East West

November 14th, 2019


On 9 November 1989, the demolition of the Berlin Wall began. Within a year, Germany was unified. East Germany dissolved and was incorporated into the …

108. Enjoy!

October 30th, 2019


In the last Food Season episode of the current batch, we get into the language of restaurant service - specifically those terms that give some of us fiery indigestion, like “Enjoy!” or “Are you still working on that?” …

107. Apples

October 9th, 2019


Late 2019 will see the biggest apple launch of our lifetimes. 22 years in the making, ripening on millions of trees into picture-perfect redness, here comes the WA38, more snazzily known as the Cosmic Crisp. The name …

106. Typo Demom

September 15th, 2019


Ever misspelled a word or committed a typo? It wasn’t your fault; you were demonically possessed. Ian Chillag from Everything is Alive podcast …

105. F'ood

September 3rd, 2019


When is cheese not cheese, or crab not crab? When it’s spelled cheez or krab or even ch’eese or cra’b… Novelty spellings for foods-that-aren’t-made-out-of-the-thing-they-sound-like-they’re-made-out-of go back a pretty …

104. Words into Food

August 17th, 2019


It’s Food Season at the Allusionist. Last episode we learned all about compiling recipes, turning food into words. This time, we meet someone who turns words into food - no, she doesn’t make Alphabetti Spaghetti. When …

103. Food Into Words

August 5th, 2019


When recipe writing is done well, the skill and effort involved might not be evident. But explaining the different steps clearly so that people of …

102. New Rules

July 14th, 2019


I don’t know exactly when or where, but at some point in the past few years, I stopped putting punctuation at the end of sentences. Why? The internet …

101. Two Or More

June 26th, 2019


Oysters, fragrances, canoeing, space stations, God, hats, and of course people - the word ‘bisexual’ has described a great deal of different things, …

56+12. Joins & Pride

June 6th, 2019


To celebrate Pride Month, I’m playing two of the Allusionist episodes that have stuck with me the most during the show’s existence.

The first is …

100. The Hundredth

May 27th, 2019


To mark the 100th* episode of the Allusionist, here’s a celebratory parade of language-related facts: some of your favourites from the Allusionist back catalogue, some of my favourites from the Allusionist back …

99. Polari

May 12th, 2019


When there were no safe spaces to be gay, Polari allowed gay men to identify and communicate with each other, and to keep things secret from …

98. Alter Ego

April 27th, 2019


Today: three pieces about alter egos, when your name - the words by which the world knows you - is replaced by another for particular purposes, such …

97. The Future is Now?

April 11th, 2019


“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 …

96. Trust

March 26th, 2019


“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 …

95. Verisimilitude

March 11th, 2019


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 …

94. Harsh Realm

February 22nd, 2019


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. …

93. Gossip

February 9th, 2019


‘Idle’, ‘trivial’, ‘scurrilous’: the word ‘gossip’ is often accompanied by uncomplimentary adjectives. But don’t dismiss it; from childbirth to …

92. To Err Is Human

January 24th, 2019


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 …

Extra special QUIZ!

December 18th, 2018


Here’s a wordy quiz for you to play along with as you listen. Get a pen and paper, or fill in your answers online at

Let me know how you fare in the quiz and puzzles at

91. Bonus 2018

December 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 …

90. Dear Santa

November 30th, 2018


Jim Glaub and Dylan Parker didn’t think too much of it when, every year, a few letters for Santa were delivered to their New York apartment.

But then one year, 400 letters arrived. And they decided they had to answer …

89. WPM

November 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 …

88. Name Changers

November 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 …

87. Name v. Law

October 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 …

86. Name Therapy

October 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 …

85. Skin Story

September 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 …

84. Trammels

September 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 …

83. Yes, As In

August 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 …

82. A Novel Remedy

August 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 …

81. Shark Week

July 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 …

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

June 28th, 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 …

80. Warm Front

June 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 …

79. Queer

June 3rd, 2018


Strange or obtuse; a stinging homophobic slur; a radical political rejection of normativity; a broad term encompassing every and any variation on …

78. Oot in the Open

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 …

42+43. Survival: The Key rerun

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 …

77. Survival part 1: Second Home

April 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 …

76. Across the Pond

April 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 …

75. Ear Hustling

March 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 …

74. Take A Swear Pill

March 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 …

73. Supername!

February 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 …

72. Hey

February 9th, 2018



“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 …

71. Triumph/Trumpet/Top/Fart

January 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 – …

70. Bonus 2017

December 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 …

69. How the Dickens stole Christmas

December 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 …

68. Curse Soup

November 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 …

67. Open Me part II

November 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 …

66. Open Me part I

October 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.

Ear …

65. Eponyms III: Who’s That Guy?

October 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

64. Technobabble

September 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 …

63. Evolution of Accents

September 14th, 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 …

62. In Crypt, Decrypt

September 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 …

61. In Your Hand

August 17th, 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 – …

60. Zillions

August 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 …

59. One To Another

June 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 …

58. Eclipse

June 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 …

57. AD/BC

June 1st, 2017


There’s a small matter I trip over regularly in the Allusionist:
Not the fruit.

Specicially, the terms BC and AD, Before Christ and Anno Domini …

56. Joins

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 …

55. Namaste

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

54. The Authority

April 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 …

53. The Away Team

April 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 …

14 rerun: Behave

March 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

52. Sanctuary

March 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 …

51. Under the Covers – part II

February 21st, 2017


Does the available vocabulary for sex leave something to be desired? Namely desire? (And also the ability to use it without laughing/dying of …

50. Under the Covers – part I

February 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 …

49. Bonus 2016

December 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 …

48. Winterval

December 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 …

47. The Year Without a Summer

November 21st, 2016


Today: a tale of darkness, gathering storms, and a terrifying creature that resembles a human man…

46. The State Of It

November 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 …

45. Eponyms II: Name That Disease

October 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 …

44: This Is Your Brain On Language

October 3rd, 2016


What is your beautiful brain up to as you comprehend language? Cognitive psychologist Jenni Rodd takes a peek.


43. The Key part II: Vestiges

September 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 …

42. The Key part I: Rosetta

September 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 …

41. Getting Toasty

August 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 …

39. Generation What?

July 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 …

38. Small Talk

June 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 …

12 rerun: Pride

June 13th, 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 …

37. Brand It

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 …

36. Big Lit

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 …

35. Word of the Day

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. …

34. Continental

April 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 …

33. Please

April 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 …

32. Soho

March 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 …

31. Post-Love

March 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 …

30. US Election Lexicon

February 17th, 2016


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 …

29. WLTM part II

February 6th, 2016


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 …

28. WLTM part I

January 28th, 2016


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 …

27. Bonus 2015

December 23rd, 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 …

26. Xmas Man

December 2nd, 2015


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 …

25. Toki Pona

November 19th, 2015


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 …

24. Spill Your Guts

November 4th, 2015


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 …

23. Criminallusionist

October 29th, 2015


Phoebe Judge and Lauren Spohrer from the podcast Criminal stop by to talk about the linguistic challenges of crime reporting. They also share their …

22. Vocables

October 21st, 2015


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 …

21. Eponyms I: The Ballad of Bic and Biro

October 14th, 2015


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 …

20. Baby Talk

October 7th, 2015


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 …

19. Architecting About Dance

September 24th, 2015


“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 …

18. Fix part II

September 9th, 2015


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 …

17. Fix part I

August 28th, 2015


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 …

16. Word Play

August 12th, 2015


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 …

15. Step Away

July 29th, 2015


‘Step-‘, as in stepparents or stepchildren, originated in grief. Family structures have evolved, but are stepmothers now so tainted by fairytale …

14. Behave

June 30th, 2015


Sometimes words can become your worst enemy. Clinical psychologist Jane Gregory tells how to defuse their power. There’s more about this episode at

13. Mixed Emojions

June 17th, 2015


Emoji allow communication without words. Could emoji be the universal language of the 21st century? Matt Gray and Tom Scott, founders of the …

12. Pride

June 3rd, 2015


“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 …

11. Brunchtime

May 20th, 2015


What does brunch have to do with Lewis Carroll? Fall down the rabbit hole of brunch semantics with Dan Pashman of the Sporkful podcast

10. Election Lexicon

May 5th, 2015


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 …

9. The Space Between

April 22nd, 2015


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 …

8. Crosswords

April 8th, 2015


Cryptic crosswords: delightful brain exercise, or the infernal taunting of the incomprehensible? Either way, crossword setter John Feetenby explains …

7. Mountweazel

March 25th, 2015


You’d think you could trust dictionaries, but it turns out, they are riddled with LIES.

Visit to find out more about …

6. The Writing On The Wall

March 11th, 2015


Those words on museum walls that you can’t be bothered to read? They’re more important than you think…

5. Latin Lives!

February 25th, 2015


Every week since September 1989, a radio station in Finland has broadcast a weekly news bulletin…in Latin.


Let’s find out!

Visit …

4. Detonating the C-Bomb

February 11th, 2015


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 …

3. Going Viral

January 28th, 2015


Remember when ‘viral’ used to only mean something bad, eg. something that would make you ill or destroy your computer?

How things have changed. Tom …

2. Bosom Holder

January 15th, 2015


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 …

1. Ban The Pun.

January 14th, 2015


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 …

Loading ...

Listen to The Allusionist


A free podcast app for iPhone and Android

  • User-created playlists and collections
  • Download episodes while on WiFi to listen without using mobile data
  • Stream podcast episodes without waiting for a download
  • Queue episodes to create a personal continuous playlist
RadioPublic on iOS and Android
Or by RSS
RSS feed

Connect with listeners

Podcasters use the RadioPublic listener relationship platform to build lasting connections with fans

Yes, let's begin connecting
Browser window

Find new listeners

  • A dedicated website for your podcast
  • Web embed players designed to convert visitors to listeners in the RadioPublic apps for iPhone and Android
Clicking mouse cursor

Understand your audience

  • Capture listener activity with affinity scores
  • Measure your promotional campaigns and integrate with Google and Facebook analytics
Graph of increasing value

Engage your fanbase

  • Deliver timely Calls To Action, including email acquistion for your mailing list
  • Share exactly the right moment in an episode via text, email, and social media
Icon of cellphone with money

Make money

  • Tip and transfer funds directly to podcastsers
  • Earn money for qualified plays in the RadioPublic apps with Paid Listens