Archive for ‘The Allusionist’

February 9, 2016

love is in the air(waves)

Valentine’s Day approaches! It’s never been a festival I celebrate (at least not for the romance aspect), but nonetheless, the love-related audio abounds:

Answer Me This has just gone on paternity leave for three months, but we leave you with the new AMT Love album, an hour of not-been-on-the-podcast material about dating, sex and forked urethras. It’s for sale on iTunes, Amazon and our own Answer Me This! Store, and you can read all about it at answermethispodcast.com/love and hear a trailer below.

I’ll be honest: it’s probably one of the most unromantic things you could possibly listen to.

Then! There’s a fun new Allusionist double bill about dating ads – the history of lonely hearts over the last 300 years, in WLTM part I; and in WLTM part II, how one woman conduced a grand linguistic experiment to game the online dating system and find her perfect match (I love this story!).

It reminded me of how my friend Clare met her husband James: he filtered the dating site’s results so it only showed him women who specified that they liked drinking and smoking. Only two women made it through the filters, and one was Clare. They’ve been married for nearly four years now.



December 24, 2015

A very fruity Christmas

After the runaway train mayhem of me trying to teach Jane Garvey how to sew on Woman’s Hour earlier this year, BBC Radio 4 saw fit to reunite the double act, so I went over to Jane’s house and we tried to make Christmas decorations out of dried fruit. Frankly I showed little aptitude for fruit sculpting, but I had Great Fun Trying. You can hear it here, if you want to throw together some fruity decorations in time for Christmas.

There’s one last episode of The Allusionist for 2015, in which I tackle some of the listeners’ requests for etymology and word advice: theallusionist.org/bonus2015

And I’ve just finished the biggest editing job of the year: the annual Best of Answer Me This compilation. Assembling the montage of drunk, plaintive and misbegotten voicemails is my favourite task every year. Here are a couple from years past:


December 15, 2015

new kid on the block

This was an incredible surprise:

iTunes Best of 2015

Being part of Radiotopia and making the Allusionist this year has been my best ever job anyway, but it was a real thrill for iTunes to pick it out thus. And Answer Me This as a classic! Classic like a car; classic like a 48-volume set of Sir Walter Scott’s novels…

I haven’t really sent Christmas cards for ten years or thereabouts, and accordingly, I now receive very few cards myself. The latest episode of the Allusionist will ensure that dwindles to nought. Though hearing Horrible Histories historian Greg Jenner describe Victorian Christmas cards (bacon! Killer wasps! Death!), I’m half inclined to get back in.

The episode is at theallusionist.org/christmas, and Greg also talks about why Father Christmas is called Santa Claus. Such a shame he narrowly missed being Captain Christmas…

PS This is your annual reminder to buy the Answer Me This! Christmas, if you crave an hour long special about different festive practices and problems. Helps drown out the sound of the traditional festive family argument.

PPS I know that people talking about sleep and dreams is pretty boring, but I tried to make it as interesting as I could in this interview with Van Winkle’s. Anyone know a cure for hypnopompic hallucinations? Please??

PPPS All the Radiotopians chose their favourite episodes they’ve made this year. Christmas party playlist!

November 24, 2015

Toki Pona

An ex-boyfriend of mine used to say, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”; that’s right, my ex-boyfriend was Wittgenstein. And yes, the casual chitchat needed improvement.

But then, in the latest Allusionist, I realised he/Wittgenstein had a point.

My Radiotopisibling Nate DiMeo of The Memory Palace decided we should learn the minimalist designed language Toki Pona. I last studied a new language half a lifetime ago and my brain has calcified since, so I found this one difficult to grasp – and then, without verbal communication easily at my disposal, my whole persona crumbled. Pathetically quickly.

You can find the episode and links to the language at theallusionist.org/tokipona; if you decide to learn it yourself, let me know how you get on. Better than me, I expect.

PS Thanks SO MUCH to you if you donated to Radiotopia! 19,500+ people have ensured we can keep on doing our shows for at least another year.

November 8, 2015

lying and truthing

Thanks to everybody who showed up for my Reddit AMA the other day! I’m doing a similar exercise on Product Hunt in tandem with Radiotopiboss Roman Mars, so concoct more questions to fling at us on 12th November, 6pm GMT, 1pm ET, 10am PT.

Podcasting has reached Radio 4! I was on the first episode of Miranda Sawyer’s new series In Pod We Trust, which, incidentally, was one of the rejected titles for what became Answer Me This.

The Radiotopia fundraiser is just over halfway, and the weekly Allusionists continue apace, if ‘apace’ means ‘slightly late and showing signs of mental and physical strain’. Last week, for ‘Criminallusionist’, Phoebe Judge and Lauren Spohrer of Criminal stopped by to talk about the ethics of crime reporting, the effectiveness of polygraphs, and lies.

In contrast, the latest episode is all about honesty: Dave Nadelberg and Neil Katcher from Mortified visit to talk about keeping a diary. I’ve never really done it, because the thought of ever being confronted with written evidence of my own personality is too horrifying. But they almost made me wish I did.


October 26, 2015

Radiotopia Forever!

Here are the minutes from the past couple of weeks in my realm*:

1. I was recently on the lovely BBC Radio 3 show The Verb. The theme of the episode was ‘backwards’, so I was talking about false etymology and reverse linguistic engineering. There was also wrestling, and those backwards satanic messages in songs. AND they gave me four kinds of cake and free books. It was a great day. Here’s the show on the BBC’s site, but you can also search for it as a podcast.

2. I’m currently in the midst of a spate of weekly Allusionists, each in collaboration with another Radiotopian. Hrishikesh Hirway from the wonderful Song Exploder and charming veteran songwriter Tony Hazzard joined me to talk about vocables – the non-word words in songs like ‘la’ and ‘doo’ and ‘zig-a-zig ah’. You can hear the special Song Explusionist here. The week before that, Roman Mars popped up to talk about his beloved eponyms, so James Ward (founder of the Boring Conference and author of Adventures in Stationery) appeared to talk about the eponymous pens Bic and Biro. Hear here. Three more Radiotopial episodes are in the pipeline. The Podcast Broadcast interviewed me about all this Radiotopianism, which is happening because…

3. It’s Radiotopia fundraising time! A year after the record-breaking Kickstarter that made it possible for me to start The Allusionist, we now need listeners to step in and support the collective long term, with small monthly donations. (One-off donations are also extremely welcome. Even £1 is very useful.)

I don’t want to repeat what I’ve written about the fundraiser here and also last year, during the Kickstarter – those points still stand, but I will update to add that my excitement then at the prospect of becoming a full-time podcaster has only increased now that I am one. This has been the best year of my professional life, and The Allusionist is the most demanding and creatively fulfilling job I’ve ever had. I’d love to be able to carry on making it for as long as possible, so if you are able to chip in anything at radiotopia.fm or Paypal, I and the twelve other shows will be Very Grateful Indeed. And we’ll use your money very wisely. Promise. (Conceals order for platinum exoskeleton.)

Just one more thing: I’ll be doing a Reddit AMA this Thursday at 7pm UK time, 3pm ET, 12pm PT, middle of the night most other places. Please come along and ask me about Allusionist stuff, Answer Me This, or any old thing that’s on your mind. You know I live for it.

Here’s my AMA proof, as IF anyone would aim so low as to masquerade as me**:

HZ reddit proof

* which is slumped in front of a screenful of edit software for 12-15 hours per day, LIVING THE DREAM yes yes
** Seriously. Have some self-respect. At least go for someone who’s on telly.

October 9, 2015

Dance, Baby, Dance

Podcasters, it is a long time since last we met*, but there is now a date for our next London meetup: 25th November. There are full details over at the Facebook event. Come along!

*Because I’ve spent nearly all of this year in my flat, working. Here are the latest Allusionists:

They said you can’t have werewolves AND Step Up 4 in one podcast about linguistics. I said: try me. theallusionist.org/dance

Why do we talk to babies like we – and they – are idiots? We can’t help it! For REASONS. We’re wired that way. theallusionist.org/baby-talk

For the next month, I’ll be releasing new Allusionists every week. Argh! I’m excited but daunted by the amount of work, as Answer Me This will also continue apace. Let’s see if I make it to November with ears and eyes intact.

PS Allusionist T-shirts have just landed.

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September 8, 2015

Fixing it

The Guardian interviewed me about the Allusionist and Answer Me This. Click here to read it. Being interviewed is always a bit weird and embarrassing because of all the stupid shit that pours out of my mouth, but this one is worth looking at for the photo alone. And if that’s not enough, I held forth at length on a recent episode of Podcast Junkies.

The latest Allusionists came about because I’m rubbish at parties. At MaxFunCon this June, I was being a bit introverty and pathetic about going into the big Saturday night shindig, then as I skulked outside I got into a big chat with a charming couple who turned out to be Hampton and Michael Catlin, the founders of the crowdsourced dictionary Wordset. Wordy people? I had to get them on the show. Wordset is a really interesting project, but they had something else they wanted to talk about: a particular strain of English developing in the corridors of power of the European Union.

Visit theallusionist.org/fix-ii for more about the episode, including a laugh-a-minute EU report about English misuse. Too late to count as a hot summer beach read?

And here’s the first part of the pair of Fix episodes:

August 28, 2015

Truth Be Told

One of my favourite podcast genres is the ‘people telling true stories about their lives’ genre. Is there a pithier term for it? Anyway, imagine my joy when I got to host a PTTSATL show! Truth be Told just went out on BBC Radio 4, and is available online here.

I bear scars from this show. Not emotional ones – the mic stand took a chunk out of my hand so I spent the second half of the recording bleeding into a little pile of papers on which audience members had written their heartfelt personal stories.

I managed not to spill any blood when I appeared on Passion Pods. More surprisingly, I also managed to hold the tears in, even though I was talking about my slippery mess of a career. Though the twelve rough years all seem worth it now I get to make The Allusionist! Here are the latest couple of episodes:

In Word Play, I found out the ingredients of fun word games from games inventor Leslie Scott of Oxford Games, who came up with Ex Libris, Flummoxed and JENGA. She’s an absolute delight. There’s more about the episode and links to hear it at theallusionist.org/word-play.

The latest episode is a jaunty trip through 18th century grammatical history, and the almighty battle of language preservation vs language evolution. Which side are you on? theallusionist.org/fix-i

July 31, 2015

Spoken and speaking

One of the things that keeps me awake at night (aside from car alarms, waking hallucinations, and my neighbour laughing REALLY loudly) are thoughts like, “Where does THIS word come from?” I’ll try to look it up without waking my husband; and usually the etymology will turn out to be not particularly surprising or interesting. But if it is…that’s a sleepless night, and, if I’m lucky, an episode of the Allusionist.

That’s how it was with ‘step-‘. I thought it would be a fairly straightforward term – but, as I learnt in the new episode, it is neither straightforward etymologically nor emotionally. Aaron Mahnke from Lore Podcast brings the history.

You can hear the episode at theallusionist.org/step. AND I’d love it if you’d join me for a live chat about the episode on Tuesday 4th August, 8pm UK time, on Spoken – it’s a new platform for podcast listeners to gather and discuss shows, and this is the first time I’ll have done this kind of thing, so we’re all just seeing whether/how it works! Go to spoken.am to request an invitation, then prepare your typing-fingers for some chatting next Tuesday. But if you can’t make it, you can drop by to catch up later.

Another common process that results in an Allusionist instalment is me thinking, “Ooh, I’d love to find out more about someone’s job.” That’s how the previous episode came about: cognitive behavioural therapist Dr Jane Gregory describes how she goes about defusing words that are ruining patients’ lives. It’s a fascinating insight. Our brains really do a number on us. theallusionist.org/behave

Aaand finally: yesterday I was on The Spot on San Francisco public radio station KALW, talking about the Latin Lives! episode with charming Latin fan Ashleyanne Krigbaum. Hear here.

June 19, 2015

News Quiz and emoji

Most of this week passed in a jetlaggy fugue state: I just got back from California, where I got to hang out with all the delightful Radiotopians, AND attend MaxFunCon, which is a mountain-top holiday camp for podcast enthusiasts. In front of a very energetic audience, Dave Holmes, Paul F Tompkins, Janie Haddad Tompkins, Nadia Kamil and I recorded this ridiculously fun episode of International Waters. (Which, obviously, the UK should have won. But YOU try slagging off Sesame Street on the away team’s turf.)

Just after I got back, I was called in for The News Quiz to replace an ill panellist. Thanks to jetlag-brain, I can only remember a single word, and I’m scared to listen back to it, but if you want to, it is here and also on Radio 4’s Friday Night Comedy podcast feed.

I also made a tiny cameo on this week’s 99% Invisible about Sigmund Freud’s couch. See if you can spot it.

The big task this week was shunting out the latest Allusionist, which is all about emoji. I don’t use them myself, but having heard about their place in 5,500 years of linguistic history, I have new respect for them. Listen via theallusionist.org/emoji. Content warning: penis trees.

May 22, 2015

brunchtime

DanHelen2
In the new Allusionist episode, I teamed up with Dan Pashman from The Sporkful, one of my favourite podcasts, to consider the semantics of brunch. He also taught me a breakfast-architecture technique known as ‘the porklift’. Find out more about the episode at theallusionist.org/brunch, and you can hear more of my conversation with Dan on this recent Sporkful episode. My capacity for pedantry pales in comparison to Dan’s! Must. Try. Harder.

I was on this episode of a new Radio 4 comedy panel show, Best Behaviour, with Holly Walsh, Richard Herring and Lloyd Langford. It’s all about manners, which I wouldn’t say were my strong point, but my mum listened and approved, so PHEW.

I’m also on this recent episode of International Waters with Dave Holmes, Arnab Chanda, Paul Provenza and Brigid Ryan. We recorded very soon after the general election, so you may feel Arnab and I were slightly forlorn in our defence of the UK. On the subject of Maximum Fun – I’ll be attending my first MaxFunCon this year, so if you’re going to be there too, please come and say hello! And sign up for one of my group therapy sessions if you fancy airing any of your problems and questions.

Finally: listen out for me on the News Quiz on Radio 4 next Friday at 6.30pm!

May 6, 2015

Election Lexicon

Happy Election Eve! (Interpret ‘happy’ as abstractly as you feel is necessary given the circumstances.)

Taking refuge in dictionaries from the political storms, for the new Allusionist I discovered the etymology of several election-related words, such as ‘poll’ (hairy!), ‘ballot’ (ballsy!), ‘argue’ (shiny!) and ‘Tory’ (a whole world of WTF). You can find the episode at theallusionist.org/electionlexicon, and it’s an excellent length to accompany you on your way to the polling station tomorrow, if that journey is precisely nine minutes.

PS: I wrote about the different parties’ names for The Pool, click here to read.

PPS: Here I am recording the episode at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. You might be able to hear from the show that it was WINDY.

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March 26, 2015

Allusionist: Mountweazel

A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from a listener, Eley Williams, asking whether I know that dictionaries contain false words, to act as copyright traps.

I DID NOT KNOW.

So I got Eley on the phone for the latest Allusionist, which left me very disAllusioned about dictionaries, let me tell you. Episode is at theallusionist.org/mountweazel.

Also, if you have a moment, could you do Radiotopia a favour and fill in their survey? You listeners know quite a bit about podcasters, but we know very little about you; hopefully if we can find out, we can make our shows better for your ears. And, you stand to win a delightful pair of wooden Tivoli headphones, worth over £100; so either way, your ears will win. Trot along to surveynerds.com/allusionist, please and thank you.

March 11, 2015

Allusionist 6: The Writing On The Wall

New Allusionist is out! In this episode, exhibition-maker Rachel Souhami reveals the work that goes into the text panels accompanying exhibits at museums – and that only 30% of visitors read them. I read them, Rachel! (Though admittedly when I’m abroad and the text panels are written in a language I don’t know, I feel slightly relieved not to feel the obligation.)

Perhaps my favourite thing about making The Allusionist is finding out about something I had no idea about. Rachel is fascinating, and I’ll never approach an exhibition in quite the same way again.

Full details and listening links are at theallusionist.org/museums, or have at it right here:

February 25, 2015

Allusionist 5: Latin Lives!

20+ years ago, my Latin teacher played our class a clip of a Finnish radio station that broadcasts a weekly news bulletin in Latin. I’d always been curious as to why – and how – they do this.

At long last, I found out, in the new Allusionist:

February 11, 2015

Allusionist 4: Detonating the C-bomb

This is the first episode of The Allusionist I worked on, but I think you’ll understand why I couldn’t release it first.

WARNING: STRONG LANGUAGE THROUGHOUT.

January 29, 2015

Allusionist goes viral

In the latest Allusionist, I find out lots of interesting stuff about how BuzzFeed goads you into viewing and sharing stuff using only LINGUISTIC SORCERY. But never sarcasm or round numbers. Plus there’s a cameo from Roman Mars, complaining that we’re all misusing the word ‘viral’. Read more about the episode at theallusionist.org/viral, and hear it on iTunes/SoundCloud/RSS, or, if you can only be arsed to click once, not twice, right here:

January 14, 2015

The Allusionist begins

Boggle logo yes

I am very excited to tell you that my new Radiotopia show The Allusionist – which many of you very generously Kickstarted last autumn – has landed!

It’s all about language – little documentaries about words and phrases, with etymological tidbits thrown in. Its online home is theallusionist.org, and the show is available via iTunes, SoundCloud, RSS and various other podcast-wranglers.

Upon hearing I was doing a show about language, loads of people asked me, “Will there be episodes about puns?” Well, guess what: the very first episode is about puns, so I could get the damn things out of the way. It features my punfortunate brother Andy (familiar to you Bugle fans), and the puntriarch himself, our father Zack. TAKE COVER.

I wanted to launch the show with a double bill, and the second episode is all about bras: blogger Lori Smith teaches me about the history of undergarments, while I wonder why we have so many synonyms for our knickers, but none for bras.


A couple of weeks ago I was chatting with the Radiotopian overlord Roman Mars, and he asked me how it was different starting a new podcast now to when Answer Me This! began eight years ago.

Here’s something which is the same: I don’t know exactly what my show is or how to make it, but I can only learn those things by making it and putting it out. One of the most important pieces of advice I give to people starting a podcast is not to publicise it for at least three months or ten episodes, whichever equals more episodes. They never believe me. But I insist that it’s a good move, because a show always improves, and finds its footing; and it’s not a problem, because when listeners do find it a little later, they are happy to find a backlog of episodes to binge on. Between you and me, I was hoping to follow this advice myself this time. BUT…

Here’s a difference: this time, people are listening. You can’t keep a Radiotopia production under the radar. And there was this very flattering review in the Allusionist’s debut week. Of course it is extraordinary to have listeners right from the start, but, given my statement in the paragraph above, it is also VERY DAUNTING. I was insomniac and crapping myself* for weeks before launching The Allusionist! When we launched AMT, I was totally gung ho: I had no idea what I was getting myself into, nor any relevant experience; and luckily our handful of listeners in the early days were very forgiving of these scrappy upstarts. Now, however, I have spent thousands of hours podcasting, so people expect me not to produce a sloppy bowl of shit soup. While I don’t think the first episodes are sloppy bowls of shit soup, I’ve never presented or produced anything like The Allusionist before – it’s a very different beast to AMT, or Sound Women, or live radio – and I know it will take me a few months to get to grips with it properly. So you’re very welcome to listen to the show now, but you’re also welcome to go away and come back in, say, September, when it is likely to be a fully realised audio masterpiece (or a tidy bowl of shit soup, at least).

Here’s another difference: I am now a full-time podcaster, and it is the best job I have ever had. Long may it continue!

*Not literally, thanks for your concern.