General Education

Noodle Podcast of the Month: The Allusionist (February 2016)

Noodle Podcast of the Month: The Allusionist (February 2016)
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John Dodig February 22, 2016

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the tens of thousands of options available to you. The Noodle Podcast of the Month series reports on standouts from this crowded field. This month, embark on some “small adventures in language” with The Allusionist, our pick for February 2016.

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Radio just might be the future.

According to a <a href="{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow" }, as of August 2015 iTunes users had downloaded more than 20 billion podcast episodes from the company’s audio marketplace. And that’s not to mention the millions of individuals who stream or download these programs from hosts like [SoundCloud](" target="_blank">representative from Apple or Stitcher, or directly from the websites of podcast networks or podcasts themselves. The same Apple rep reports that the number of listeners has been steadily growing since 2013.

Lots of podcasts are educational, including Stuff You Should Know (which — I assure you — lives up to its name) and The Bedley Bros. EdChat (which is itself about education).

But one standout show that can teach listeners a thing or two about the ways we humans communicate is The Allusionist.

The Allusionist

# What is it?

The Allusionist, hosted by veteran broadcaster Helen Zaltzman, is part of the mighty Radiotopia network of podcasts.

Fortnightly, Zaltzman walks listeners through a different aspect of language in an effort to understand what we’re actually getting at when we’re talking or writing about something. She researches deeply, thinks quickly, speaks cleverly, and engages with guests graciously. And she has a knack for asking great, large-scale questions about the ways in which we have shaped language to suit our needs and the ways in which language has shaped our lives.

Each episode begins with some etymology as a warm-up. Within the first two minutes or so of any given program, Zaltzman answers a question you probably didn’t even know you had: Which “orange" came first — the fruit or the color? Why is meat sometimes called “game"? How did tennis get its seemingly nonsensical name? What’s the origin of the phrase “log in"?

She then moves on to introduce the broad topic she’ll be covering during the next half-hour or so. Zaltzman has covered words and nonwords alike. She’s explored vocables (“la la la," di di di," and those other sounds that singers use when they’re not using words), crosswords, portmanteaux, puns, lying, spaces (yes, the ones between words), emoji, and the role of Latin in contemporary life. And that’s just to name a few topics from the podcast.

The show has been around for a little more than a year, during which Zaltzman has dropped 29 episodes. Though she spends some time monologuing (typically at quite a clip), she usually has at least one guest per episode. Refreshingly, these individuals come from many different fields; she’s chatted with academics, lexicographers, a folklorist, broadcasters, a game designer, a psychologist, journalists, a digital media strategist, a choreographer, and many others.

# Who would love it?

It’s important to note that a few episodes of The Allusionist contain heavy-duty profanity, though this is by design — swear words themselves are the focus of an early installment. But in an effort to deter young or otherwise easily offended listeners from listening to these particular episodes, Zaltzman places caps-locked warnings in the relevant episode descriptions; she also offers spoken warnings within the episodes themselves. (In a less serious and more playful example, the host warns listeners of a pun-centric episode that they’re about to experience “hideous instances of wordplay.")

With the exception of those labeled episodes, the show is otherwise suitable for anyone who likes thinking deeply about language. It’s a program for word nerds, but also for people who are into history, culture, science, games, and literature.

She’s read comments on the show from fans running the gamut from children to professors to retirees — the age range of interested and intrigued listeners is wide.

# What makes it great?

Zaltzman is fantastic at drawing our attention to the roles that words play in things that don’t seem that related to language, like food, online dating, stepparents, product names, dance, and clothing. Her narration is easy to follow, but she packs a lot into her sentences. She’s funny, chatty, smart, warm, and never glib.

While the show is about language in a very literal sense, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it’s anything but dry. It spends most of its time dealing with the messy ways we use language, the ways language fails us, and the words we have to use when it isn’t appropriate or safe for us to use the right ones.

# What are some standout episodes?

Toki Pona This recent episode introduces listeners to the constructed language, or conlang, called Toki Pona (which is itself Toki Pona for — roughly — good and simple language). Word for word, it’s the smallest language in the world and was created by a Canadian linguist in 2001. In this episode, Zaltzman and fellow Radiotopia podcast host Nate DiMeo decided to try their hands at it. In so doing, they explored the tradeoffs between specificity and simplicity in language, the ways in which language structures how we process and structure information, and the relationship between our vocabularies and our environments.

Word Play In this one, Zaltzman sits down with the founder of Oxford Games, Leslie Scott. They talk about why viciousness is a key component of competitive word games, how to bluff well, and why speed, statistics, and scoring are important in game design. They also take a fascinating detour away from word games to discuss Jenga! — which Scott also invented — and the process by which it came to be named for the Swahili word for “build."

Latin Lives! Did you know that a Finnish radio station broadcasts a weekly news show entirely in Latin? And that it’s done so every week for the past 27 years? It’s called Nuntii Latini (“news in Latin"), and Zaltzman notes that the program is “very popular amongst Latin enthusiasts, particularly students and priests." Our host chats with one of the show’s producers about inventing Latin-sounding words to describe modern stuff and the importance of keeping the show on the air despite the dearth of Latin speakers.

Noodle has no ties to or affiliations with The Allusionist.


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