If you’ve ever wondered about the syntax of emoji, the hierarchy of swear words, or the secret lying lives of lexicographers, The Allusionist is the podcast for you. If you have any interest in the private lives of words, this free fortnightly podcast from the award-winning Helen Zaltzman will tickle your cerebral cortex and teach you a textual thing or two.
For eight years, Helen Zaltzman has been answering the “why is this thing called this”-type questions, as she puts it, on the comedy podcast Answer Me This, which she hosts with fellow broadcaster Olly Mann. She’s also created the world’s first giant inflatable Boggle set, completed a degree in Old and Middle English, and given up her dream of being a lexicographer due to the paperwork. So she’s more than qualified to take us on some linguistic adventures in The Allusionist, from the Radiotopia collective.
Each (occasionally explicit) 15-20-minute podcast begins with some reader-submitted or sponsored etymology, then introduces us to the main focus of the episode, which can be anything from recent legal rulings on language to the hidden stories of inventions and how they got their names. After giving us some background, we get to hear humorous interviews with linguists, journalists, curators, psychologists, and other esteemed word-users. The episodes are fast-paced, slick productions with great music and delivery. This makes them ideal for getting the most value out of your commute. They are also enjoyable to listen to more than once, meaning you can really grasp the range of content packed into one podcast.
The Allusionist is not just for established word nerds, however, because it isn’t just about words. It’s about the connections between words and the varied ways they shape our lives through texts, writing, technology and ideas. The podcast is a little bit anthropological, a little bit historical, a little bit technological, and it takes a peek into the media to hear how words are used and “abused” for entertainment value. Zaltzman provides concise explanations for potentially unfamiliar linguistic concepts, which is great both as an introduction or a refresher for those of us who can’t quite remember, say, what “portmanteau” is a portmanteau of, exactly.
Zaltzman and her guests don’t shy away from the metalanguage needed to delve into the topics, and if you’re looking for a podcast that isn’t afraid to use words like “anagrammatise” and “piratical” (or to feature a cover of Ode to Joy made up of expletives), then this is probably the podcast for you. It’s also probably the only podcast that will have you listening right through the closing credits, with its brilliant segment “The Sponsored Randomly Selected Word from the Dictionary” — complete with the sounds of Zaltzman flipping through the dictionary, teaching us a new word, and thumping it closed. It’s really strangely satisfying.
The Allusionist is released fortnightly on Wednesdays (UK time) and can be found on iTunes, at Radiotopia.fm, Soundcloud, Stitcher, or wherever you source your favourite podcasts. See more on Twitter and Facebook and check out theallusionist.org to listen to episodes and to access oodles of extra content.