Whether you are new to podcasts or have a queue of shows, there are always popular shows that “you must listen to”, but somehow never have. Our Point Of Entry series aims to give you just that – a point of entry into the shows you’ve heard of, but never heard. Suchandrika Chakrabarti asks host Helen Zaltzman how you should start listening to The Allusionist.
In January 2015, long-time podcaster Helen Zaltzman – not quite yet a Podcast Champion but on her way to the honour – debuted her second audio project, The Allusionist. “I didn’t know what it would be until I really started it,” Zaltzman told The Guardian* later that year. She just began with the idea that: “There are hundreds of thousands of words in the English language and the combinations of those words and humans using them is almost infinite.”
That’s what each episode of The Allusionist is: a deep-dive into the history behind a word, phrase, dialect or other facet of the English Language (slang and swear words feature often), that has been forgotten now that the term has entered mainstream use.
After eight years of making Answer Me This! along with Olly Mann and Martin Austwick, Zaltzman launched The Allusionist as a solo podcast, with Austwick providing the music. At 131 episodes and counting (Zaltzman releases two or three episodes a month; the latest, Podlingual, came out on February 25th 2021), knowing where to start with the podcast can feel daunting.
The good news is, you can start anywhere! Each episode is self-contained, there are no narrative arcs, and any inter-episode references are clearly signposted. There’s even a Lexicon page on The Allusionist website, where you can choose a word, then find the episode that it appears in.
I’ve chosen these three episodes as the ones I think newbies should begin with – and, I asked Helen Zaltzman herself to comment on my choices. Here they are:
You’ve got to love a podcast that devotes its fourth episode to the strongest swear word in the English language. But why is it the one that makes people recoil the most? Why is it so much more popular in the UK as opposed to the US, and why does it sound all the morse insulting if you hit the final ‘T’ hard? If, like me, you find yourself lost in these questions, then this episode is a great place for you to begin!
HZ: At this point, I was still learning what the Allusionist was, and how to make it. I hadn’t yet adjusted to having an audience that was not predominantly British but American, as there’s a different attitude to the C-word in the USA that I hadn’t really understood. It’s a lot of listeners’ favourite episode of the show – swearing is always a crowd-pleaser, I have since learned. Listen now >>
Gossip is an absolutely classic Allusionist episode: taking a term that has been unfairly gendered as female – and maligned as a result – then looking at why this has happened. Zaltzman uncovers the history of sexism and behind the term. Men gossip just as much as women, because it’s essential to building social bonds and finding out news in the workplace, but they don’t get the flak for it. Want to know why? Dive into this episode!
HZ: Gossip was an episode that came about because on a whim I looked up the word’s etymology, and found it to be very different to what I expected – I love it when that happens, Step Away is another episode like that, and the pieces about ‘bulldozer’, ‘lemur’ and ‘copper’. Although the history of the word is what piqued my interest, the main narrative of the episode is more about how the word has been twisted to dismiss something as trivial and feminine, even though gossip is actually really important, socially and culturally. Listen now >>
This is an unexpectedly emotional episode, as Zaltzman digs down into a culture and a dialect that emerged in the late 1800s, in response to strict laws against homosexuality, but fell out of use once those laws were neutralised by the Sexual Offences Act 1967. It’s a reminder that our language not only carries history in its syllables, but also the creativity of those who refused to be silenced. The Polari words mentioned so familiar – they’re very much in mainstream use today.
HZ: Some of the most interesting and complex topics on the show are about LGBTQ+ words, and language of oppressed people. Polari covered both. Quite a few Polari words have entered popular vernacular but I wonder if people even know they’re saying words from a secret language that gay men used to communicate with each other before homosexuality was legal. Listen now >>