Did you know the word “yoga” comes from the same root as the word “yoke”? Did you know that English towns generally used to have a “gropecunt” lane, before the latter part of that term suddenly became considered the rudest word possible? Did you know that an uncomfortable number of people are unknowingly named after one of their parents’ former flames?
It is hard not to do the “did you know” thing with Helen Zaltzman. The English podcaster has, after all, been answering questions sent to her by the listening public for more than a decade now on a show called Answer Me This! But this set of linguistic trivia does not come from that pioneering English podcast, which began in 2007. Instead, you will find all of these facts and much more on Zaltzman’s other show, The Allusionist.
The website describes it as a “podcast about language”, but Zaltzman herself has much better descriptors at the start of each episode. She has “dived under the bonnet of language to tinker with the engine”, spotted “language in a phone booth hurriedly changing into a spandex suit” (in an episode about superhero lingo), and helped “language up off the floor after a downward dog goes wrong”, in the episode where that fact about yoga comes up.
It isn’t quite an etymology show. Zaltzman does occasionally delve into the history of a word, but don’t expect every episode to have arcane trivia about Germanic roots or surprising cognates. It’s not really a linguistics show either. A recent trio of episodes about people’s names – examining how they relate to those words, why they change them, and how the law interferes – feels more sociological rather than linguistic.
More than anything, Zaltzman is interested in stories. “Detonating the C-bomb”, an early episode that features a not-safe-for-speaker chorus of swear words, spends less time on the history of “cunt” than it does trying to figure out why this one word referring to human genitalia somehow came to be considered much worse than all other words. A recent episode on “Namaste” pivots from the meaning of the word, which Americans mistakenly believe is much more profound than just “Hello”, to understanding how yoga went to the West and became about individualism.
Zalztman’s stories are always interesting, fun and often funny, though what they are not, despite this being a podcast about language is, punny. Anticipating the demands for punnery, Zaltzman dedicated her first episode to this “lowest form of wit”, interviewing her brother, fellow podcaster Andy Zaltzman whose awful pun runs are legendary.
The Allusionist and Wordy Wordpecker, two shows that focus on the wonderful world of words, delving into etymologies, linguistics and in one case putting together a full chorus of swear words.
Episodes to start off with:
- Namaste, in which Zaltzman explores the history of the Indian greeting and what it has come to represent in the West.
- Name Changers, a fascinating series of Zaltzman’s interviews with people who have changed their names, examining why they did so and what that has meant for them.
- Supername!, an Allusionist episode about the world of superhero lingo and what it has to do with Nietzsche.
- Petrichor, in which Lopez unearths details about this social-media friendly word.
- Tinder, a Wordpecker episode that recounts how this camp-fire term came to represent something else entirely.
- A Special Year-End Edition, the 2018 wrap up show that features words-of-the-year like “gaslighting” and “throwing shade”.
If you want a more bite-sized Indian entry to the world of the English language that does not shy away from puns, check out the sub-five-minute show Wordy Wordpecker. IVM Podcasts chief Amit Doshi, whose network hosts the show, said that 2018 surprised him with the success of short-form podcasts, like Wordpecker. The show, which takes a close look at the history of one word in every episode, is hosted by journalist Rachel Lopez and has covered things like “Tinder”, “Bikini” and the Instagram-favourite “Petrichor”.
And no, it doesn’t focus on the Hobson-Jobson world of Indian-inspired words like thug or shampoo. “There’s so much of that already, I didn’t want it to sound like a weekend newspaper cliche,” Lopez said. “If everything had an Anglo-Saxon root, that would suck. If everything came from the church, that would suck. Or if all came from Sanskrit a 1000 years ago, that would suck...I didn’t want it to be dumb, I wanted it to be fun. Like a BuzzFeed listicle for the ears.”
In its initial run, Wordpecker covered 12 different words, with Lopez saying she did her research by speaking to a lot of internet linguists, hobby bloggers and taking to Twitter. The show then came back for a year-end special looking at the most popular words of 2018 like “gaslighting” and “throwing shade”. It also ended the year on Apple’s list of the year’s best podcasts.
Lopez is thinking of returning for a second season that might be focused around a specific theme, or something else in the did-you-know format. “I would love to have the world learn more about words, you understand history better through them,” she said. “I think I would love to have language be for more than just TOEFL nerds, for more than just impressing your stuffy English teacher.”
Podcast picks is a fortnightly column that recommends podcasts and covers the industry. Read earlier columns here.
Corrections & clarifications: An earlier version of the piece said yoga is cognate with the word ‘yolk’, when in fact it comes from the same root as the word ‘yoke.’