The Allusionist

The Allusionist

Adventures in language with Helen Zaltzman.


June 10, 2024 58 mins

I went to the 2024 Scripps National Spelling Bee, to marvel at kids spelling words I had mostly never even heard of. But when you’re at Bee Week, the competitive spelling is merely the tip of the icebee.

Find out more about this episode, get the transcript, and listen to the rest of the Word Play series, at And visit for all the information about this year's tournament.

Members of the Al...

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Cain's Jawbone, a murder mystery cryptic puzzle novella in the form of 100 pages presented in the wrong order, has many millions of possible solutions but only one that is correct. 86 years after it was published, writer, comedian and crossword constructor John Finnemore solved it. And then, craving another 100-page cryptic puzzle murder story, he wrote his own.

Get the transcript of this episode, and find links to more informatio...

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May 13, 2024 46 mins

Exciting things have been happening with crossword puzzles in the US: more constructors, more outlets to get puzzles published, clues and answers that would never have appeared even a few years ago, and puzzle packs raising a whole lot of money for charities and humanitarian causes. 

You hear from crossword constructor extraordinaire Erik Agard, Juliana Pache of

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April 23, 2024 51 mins

AJ Jacobs makes The Puzzler podcast, wrote The Puzzler book, and sometimes turns his whole life into a puzzle. He comes bearing word games, explanations of anagrams being used to precipitate wars and were key evidence in trials, tips for writing with a quill, below-the-knee insults, and tales of living constitutionally.

AJ's new book is The Year of Living Constitutionally: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Constitution's Origin...

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April 9, 2024 42 mins

This episode, and the next couple of episodes, are about word games! Today, Joshua Blackburn recounts how his sons' uninspiring English homework led to him inventing the language quiz game League of the Lexicon; and Kathryn Hymes and Hakan Seyalıoğlu of Thorny Games explain how they make topics like language loss and deciphering alien language into creative play.

Get the transcript of this episode, and find links to more informati...

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March 23, 2024 49 mins

The word 'hypochondria' has travelled from meaning physical ailments in a particular region of your body, to ones that are only in your mind. It has been in fashion, and thoroughly out; it has been subject to a range of treatments; it has been lucrative for quacks; and it's a very understandable form of anxiety - which I have, and so does Caroline Crampton, author of the new book A Body Made of Glass: A Hi...

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March 11, 2024 37 mins

"It's quite a big undertaking going through every named feature in the whole solar system and trying to find out who that person was."

When PhD student Annie Lennox discovered a crater on Mercury, she got the chance to name it. Which sent her on a bigger space mission.

Content note: this episode contains mentions of, but not descriptions of, sexual violence.

Get the transcript of this episode, and find ...

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February 26, 2024 64 mins

This is the Tranquillusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, soothe your brain by saying a load of words that don’t really mean very much, to give you an emotional break by temporarily supplanting your interior monologue with something you can benignly ignore. Note: this is NOT a normal episode of the Allusionist, where you might learn something about language and your brain might be energised. The Tranquillusionist's purpose is to r...

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February 10, 2024 25 mins

At Lunar New Year, certain foods are particularly lucky to eat. Why? Because in Chinese, their names are puns on fortunate things. Damn, maybe noodles are all it takes to get me into puns after all... Professor Miranda Brown, cultural historian of China specialising in food and drink, explains the wordplay foods of new year, and why names are so resonant in Chinese.

Get the transcript of this episode, and find links to Miranda Bro...

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January 28, 2024 42 mins

Lipreading has been in the news this month, thanks to gossip-stoking mouth movements at the Golden Globes that the amateur lipreaders of The Internet rushed to interpret. But lipreading tutor Helen Barrow describes how reading lips really works - the confusable consonants, the importance of context and body language - and gossip maven Lainey Lui explains why these regularly occurring lipreading gossip stories are unworthy of a seco...

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December 24, 2023 62 mins

It's our annual end of year parade of all the extra good stuff this year's podguests talked about, including a mythical disappearing island, geese, human dictionaries, the dubious history of the Body Mass Index, Victorian death department stores, and much more.

In order of appearance, we hear from:

  • Translator and author Caetano Galindo on how the countril Brazil got its name
  • Lexicographer and Countdown's Dictionary Corner-...
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December 12, 2023 33 mins

We’ve got knitting! We’ve got eponyms!! We’ve got knitting eponyms!!! Which come with a whole load of battles, f-boys, duels, baseball, espionage, scandals - and socks, lots of socks.

Fibre artist and Yarn Stories podcaster Miriam Felton discusses why grafting should ditch the name 'kitchener stitch'; we learn about the eponymous cardigan; and three towns in Ontario take pretty different approaches to having problematic namesakes.


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November 20, 2023 37 mins

We’re returning to the theme of renaming, for two food-related renamings: the first one that mostly happened, the second that mostly did not - but in a good way.

Dr Erin Pritchard persuaded a British supermarket to rebrand a type of sweets that had a slur in their name. And Chris Strikes recounts the renaming conflict that was the Toronto Patty Wars of 1985.

Content note: the first part of the episode concerns an ableist slur, so...

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November 6, 2023 52 mins

The word 'misophonia' describes a condition that statistically, 20 per cent of you have: an extreme reaction to certain sounds. "For me, it was a relief to have a word for what I'd been experiencing," says Dr Jane Gregory, author of the new book Sounds Like Misophonia: How to Stop Small Noises from Causing Extreme Reactions, "because I thought for a long time that I was really uptight or maybe a bit controlling over other people, a...

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October 22, 2023 41 mins

All aboard, we're off to the 2023 Apple Festival at the University of British Columbia, to taste some apples and, most importantly, enjoy some apple names. And before that, we return to the classic Sporklusionist applesode to refresh our memory about how apple names are chosen - eponyms, portmanteaus, geography, or corporate R&D, just like how our ancestors named apples.

Dan Pashman hosts The Sporkful podcast - head to the Spo...

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October 9, 2023 35 mins

When Spanish missionaries arrived in what is now called Florida, there were 100,000-200,000 Timucua people in the region. Just two centuries later, there were fewer than 100. Soon, with all the people who spoke it dead, the Timucua language died out, too, preserved only in a few Spanish-Timucua religious texts.

In the 21st century, linguistic anthropologist Aaron Broadwell and historian Alejandra Dubcovsky have been decoding and t...

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September 24, 2023 36 mins

Lexicographer, author and Dictionary Corner resident Susie Dent has been studying words to make us feel happy. She brings etymologies concerning cows, gas, guts and fat, of bellies and breathing and bonanzas. And some that came from the high seas and aren't made up!

Find out more about this episode and the topics therein, and obtain the transcript, at

Become a member of the Allusioverse at th...

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September 13, 2023 38 mins

There's an abiding myth that the landmark dictionaries are the work of one man, in a dusty paper-filled garrett tirelessly working away singlehandedly. But really it took a village: behind every Big Daddy of Lexicography was usually a team of women, keeping the garrett clean, organising the piles of papers, reading through all the citations, doing research, writing definitions, editing, subediting...essentially being lexicographers...

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August 25, 2023 28 mins

Sterling Martin was in grad school, studying C. elegans worms, when COVID19 hit and suddenly he found himself in lexicography, as part of a team creating a Navajo-English dictionary of science terms.

Browse the dictionary at, and donate to help the project add more educational materials at

Find out more about this episode and the topics therein, and obtain the transcript, at theallusion...

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August 12, 2023 33 mins

It's the annual etymology quizlusionist! I’m on a family holiday for the first time since 1988, so enlisted my brother Andy Zaltzman of the Bugle podcast to test his/your wits on singing goats, explosives, mythological Greek sweeteners, attics, left-handedness and whales.

Can you beat Andy’s score? Play along using the interactive scoresheet at

Become a member of the Allusioverse at theallusionist....

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