Posts tagged ‘etymology’

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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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.

October 26, 2014

branching out

Radiotopia backer

A new project of mine has been bubbling away in secret for quite a while, but I’m excited to be able to divulge it at last:

If Radiotopia succeed in raising $400,000 in their current Kickstarter campaign, in January 2015 I’ll be joining their network to make a new fortnightly podcast. It’ll be all about phrases and etymology and commonplace things we say without realising how weird those things actually are.

I’m cock-a-hoop about this: anyone who has listened to Answer Me This! will have sussed that I have endless enthusiasm for this subject, so I’m looking forward to being able to spend a lot more time indulging my interest. Finally, my degree in Anglo-Saxon and Middle English will come in handy! Which, when you do a degree in Anglo-Saxon and Middle English, is not something you ever expect will happen.

I also have great admiration for what PRX and my friend Roman Mars of 99% Invisible are doing with Radiotopia: they are trying to change the way broadcasting is done. The stretch goal that my show is part of aims to correct the gender imbalance in podcasting, and you know from my Sound Women work and posts like this that I am very much in favour of that. In an ideal world, nobody would even have to make the point that they’re encouraging more shows made by women; but while podcasting, like almost all forms of media and entertainment, remains so dominated by straight white men, this is a positive start – and it’s only the beginning of their plans to diversify the field.

More broadly, Radiotopia is making it possible for independent audio creators to have complete control over what they make, whilst being able to afford to make it at all. Because while podcasting is cheap to start – recording equipment and hosting become less and less expensive as time goes on – the biggest cost is one’s time.

WHY? Making a podcast that is even halfway decent requires a hell of a lot of time and effort. If you’re listening to a podcast that you like, know that a huge amount of both went into making a podcast good enough for you to like.

For instance: each episode of Answer Me This! takes half a week to put together. When we were on a weekly schedule, that left me with slightly insufficient time to work on other things in order to earn enough to live – especially as I’m freelance, and a large chunk of a freelancer’s time gets pissed away on jockeying for paid jobs, leaving even less time in which to do actual work.

Even when my bank statements made me cry, Answer Me This! always felt worth doing, because the audience was and is growing, and continues to be so enthusiastic and encouraging. It took years for the show to make much money, and in the past couple of years the albums and Squarespace.com sponsorship have made a remarkable difference to AMT’s fortunes, but it’s still not enough to live off. Over the years I’ve had many ideas for new shows that will probably never be realised, because having been through it once before with AMT, I just couldn’t afford to spend the amount of time it takes to build up a new podcast from scratch again.

Until now!

If Radiotopia reach their Kickstarter goal, after nearly eight years of being a podcaster, they can fund my new show and I will be able to become a FULL TIME PODCASTER.

I absolutely love podcasting as a medium, both as a maker and a consumer: it’s so direct and intimate. It only involves the podcaster and the listener, with no layers in between of institutions or compliance. I can listen to material I’m interested in without a commissioner and scheduler having decided that I’m going to listen to it; and as a maker, I’m not at the mercy of those people either. I didn’t need somebody else’s permission to start making Answer Me This!; Olly and I did it because we could, then the listeners themselves confirmed that this was an OK thing to do. So few things would make me happier than for podcasting to be my main pursuit.

If you can afford to chip in to the Kickstarter, even $1 makes a difference; you’d not only be enabling me to make this new podcast which I think you’ll enjoy, but also you’d be bringing in The Heart and Criminal (one of my favourite new podcasts), AND you’d be supporting Radiotopia’s current roster of brilliant shows: Love+Radio, Theory of Everything, Radio Diaries, Strangers, Fugitive Waves, The Truth and, of course, 99% Invisible.

Also, you’d be preventing Roman Mars exploding from stress.

Click here to make all these wonderful things happen!

PS: I’ll still carry on making Answer Me This!. I plan to keep doing that show until all the questions in the world have been answered.

PPS: Earlier this year, I interviewed Roman for our Radio 4 documentary about podcasting, in which he outlined the principles that compelled him to start Radiotopia – as well as saying a lot of very interesting stuff about 99% Invisible and podcasts in general. You can stream or download the interview here (alongside interviews with several other great podcasters I spoke to) or here or right here: