The Allusionist-logo

The Allusionist


Adventures in language with Helen Zaltzman.

Adventures in language with Helen Zaltzman.


United Kingdom





Adventures in language with Helen Zaltzman.




137. Dude

Exclamation; sign of agreement OR disapproval; gendered, but circumstantially gender-neutral; term of endearment: 'dude' can do it all! But its connotations of a laid-back, cool, masculine person are only a few decades old; before that, it uptight city-dwelling tourist?? Dude, seriously! There's more about this episode, and a transcript, at Callie Wright's podcast is Queersplaining, which you can find in the kinds of places you obtain this podcast, and at...


136. Misogynoir

“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 at Her new book is Misogynoir Transformed: Black Women's Digital Resistance. There's more about this episode, and a transcript, at The music is by Martin Austwick. Hear Martin’s own songs at or search for Pale...


135. SOS

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 wrecked ship. Explaining where SOS came from and what it means are maritime archivist Christian Ostersehlte from the German Maritime Museum, and Paul Tyreman from PK Porthcurno, the Museum of Global Telecommunications. Find more information about the topics in this episode at...


Allusionist: 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 later, she has no internal monologue, and a vocabulary of only about forty words. This is a rerun of an all time fave Allusionist, but with a few extra little bits added. Content...


134. Lacuna

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 sorry mess that tasted disgustingly salty, it wasn't your fault. What you thought was a recipe was actually a message from the newspaper that they were being censored. Designer and researcher Crystian Cruz opens up the TOP SECRET files, to share the fake weather reports, single nipples vs a pair, soap opera characters getting bumped off, and the...


133. Cake is Mighter than the Sword

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 cannons, the pastries laced with the sweet taste of 1880s trade union protests. There are a few swears and saucy references in this episode. Find more information about the topics in this episode at The music is by Martin Austwick. Hear Martin’s...


132. Additions and Losses

"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 Couture has experienced way too much of people trying to convey sympathy and instead expressing their discomfort about disability and death. Content note: we talk about ableism, cancer and bereavement. Part of the conversation is about the deaths of two of Christa's babies, so...


131. Podlingual

In their podcasts Mija and Moonface, Lory Martinez and James Kim create autobiographical fiction in multiple languages. There are a few swears in this episode. Find out more about this episode at and hear the whole conversation, and the others in the series, on Scripps College's podcast feed. The music is by Martin Austwick. Hear Martin’s own songs at or search for Pale Bird on Bandcamp and Spotify, and he’s @martinaustwick on Twitter and...


130. Valentine

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 plagues. Let's get to know this multi-hyphenate saint a bit better. Find out more about topics covered in this episode at All the information in this episode is real, even though it sounds like it's not. The music is by Martin Austwick. Hear Martin’s own songs at or search for Pale Bird on Bandcamp...


129. Sorry

Apologies are such important verbal transactions. So why are so many of them soooo bad? Susan McCarthy and Marjorie Ingall from SorryWatch and Laura Beaudin of pinpoint what to look out for, to sort the apologies from the fauxpologies. There’s more about this episode at The music is by Martin Austwick. Hear Martin’s own songs at or search for Pale Bird on Bandcamp and Spotify, and he’s @martinaustwick on Twitter and Instagram. The...


128. Bonus 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 original episodes. Brace yourself for a vivid name for dust bunnies, the scary side of glamour, another reason to be grateful for bears, and Schrödinger’s Fart. There’s more about this episode at The show will be back with new episodes in late January 2021. The Allusionist's online home is


127. A Festive Hit for 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 jolly. So I drafted in singer and songwriter Jenny Owen Youngs and we wrote a festive song that is suitable for 2020. Content note: there are swears. Several of them. Jenny Owen Youngs makes music - find it at - and podcasts - Buffering the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars Investigations. She’s @jennyowenyoungs on Twitter and...


126. Survival: Custodians of the Languages

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 episode refers to violence and genocide. Find more information about the topics in this episode at, and listen to the other episodes in the Survival series: Second Home about Welsh in Patagonia; Oot in the Open, about the suppression and revival of...


125. Swearalong Quiz

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 learn many etymological facts along the way, so this is a very wholesome and educational quiz. CONTENT NOTE: this episode contains swears. Surprise! Find more information about the topics in this episode at The Allusionist music is by Martin...


124. Nightmare

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 Tapes and The Big Loop podcasts, and Chelsey Weber-Smith of the podcast American Hysteria. Beware of demons! Satan! The bogeyman! Lemurs! Wait - lemurs?? Find more information about these topics and guests at The Allusionist music is by Martin Austwick. Hear Martin’s songs at or on Spotify, and he’s...


123. Celebrity

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 try define celebrity and fame are historian Greg Jenner of the podcast You’re Dead To Me, Lindsey Weber and Bobby Finger of Who? Weekly podcast, and writer, podcaster and videomaker Hank Green. Find more information about these topics and guests at The Allusionist music is by Martin Austwick. Hear Martin’s songs at...


122. Ghostwriter

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 and Gregory Warner investigate. This piece originally aired on NPR’s Rough Translation; hear their new season at and on your pod app. Content note: the piece is about, and therefore contains, offensive terms. And towards the end of the episode, in the Minillusionist, I get into the racist violent etymology of the word ‘bulldozer’. Find...


121. No Title

In 2014, a seemingly trivial and boring incident at the bank propelled me down a linguistic road via medieval werewolves, Ms Marvel and confusingly inscribed gravestones, to find out why the English language is riddled with all this gender. What’s it FOR? How did it GET there? Will it go AWAY now please? It is, at the very least, taking up brainspace and not paying any rent. This is a recording of a live performance at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room in St Louis, Missouri on 23 November 2019,...


Tranquillusionist: Home and Garden

This is the Tranquillusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, quell anxiety and calm brain frenzies by replacing your interior monologue with words detached from significance. In this case: the list of HGTV original programming, and lawnmower adverts from before I was born. Find this episode and a transcript and some pics of lawnmower ads at, and all the Allusionist episodes - other Tranquillusionists and also ones that are actually about something - at...


The Away Team redux

After yet another spell of the British press and politicians using very dehumanising and derogatory rhetoric about migrants, I felt it necessary to go back to the Away Team episode of the Allusionist, about the language of migration, with lecturer and researcher Emma Briant, and author and editor Nikesh Shukla. This episode originally went out in early 2017, but it is never not relevant. And there’s a chunk of new material in the Minillusionist, so stick around right till the end to hear...