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100 Things We’ve Learned About Language from The Allusionist

0 comments, 224 views, posted 4:25 am 22/06/2019 in Books & Poetry by HariSeldon
HariSeldon has 7067 posts, 3761 threads, 124 points
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100 Things We’ve Learned About Language from The Allusionist, in no particular order:

  1. David: For me, as an English teacher in Germany, the Allusionist showed me again that there’s more to language than I am, you are, he is.
    HZ: Sure is, otherwise I would have had to pack in the Allusionist after a couple of episodes.

  2. HZ: Around 1200, the word ‘foot’, as in foot, meant a person. And a ‘non-foot’ was a nobody.

  3. HZ: ‘Girl’ could originally be used to refer to a child of any gender - it didn’t specifically denote a female child until the late 14th century.

  4. Bryce: The best thing I’ve learned on the Allusionist is that ‘woman’ is not actually derived from man, in a gendered way. [Episode 19, Architecting About Dance.] Definitely my favourite fun fact, also hard to explain. I would love a 5-second little script I can give to people at cocktail parties, because it’s very hard.
    HZ: I’ll try. ‘Man’ used to mean ‘person’, not specifically a male person; a female person was ‘wifman’, which became ‘woman’ because it’s easier to say. How many seconds was that?

  5. HZ: The older Old English term for a woman was ‘cwen’ or ‘quean’, and that’s kind of come back around, and no I’m not going to drop a ‘yas queen’ because I cannot pull that off and you know it.

  6. HZ: Until 1609, queen bees were known as ‘king bees’, and it’s the fault of the Greek philosopher and notorious science troll Aristotle, because although the bees were observed to lay eggs and thus were deemed biologically female, Aristotle had deemed them to be the leaders of the hive and therefore they must be male, because leaders are male. Never assume facts are stronger than prejudice. And Aristotle’s bullshit - beeshit - stuck for nearly 2000 years.

  7. HZ: In 1609, the first full-length English-language book about bee-keeping was published, The Feminine Monarchie: Or the Historie of Bees, written by priest and beekeeper Charles Butler. The book contained advice about bee care and recognising bee noises - there’s even a madrigal for four voices imitating the sound of bees at swarming time. And Charles Butler renamed king bees ‘queen bees’. It caught on!

  8. HZ: Charles Butler also wrote books about music theory, logical philosophy, and spelling reform, arguing for tidying up English spelling by using a phonetic alphabet. He even printed an edition of his bee book using this spelling system.

  9. John: My favourite thing The Allusionist has taught me about language is that, since its very inception, it has been a complete and total shitshow, and that I should actually, more often than not, be really excited when I notice that it is changing in front of my very eyes. Ears. Whatever.
    HZ: It’s true, John, but Charles Butler did try.

  10. HZ: The etymology of ‘lady’ is a little perplexing. It appears to derive from the Old English ‘hlæfdige’, hlæf meant loaf and dige either meant maid or knead, loaf maid or loaf kneader; either way, the lady was the breadmaker.

  11. HZ: Lord is from the Old English hlæford or hlæfweard, hlæf loaf again, weard was guardian or keeper. The lord was the breadkeeper. Who knew the aristocracy was so bready.

  12. Noah: I learned that the dictionary is not the ultimate authority [episode 54, The Authority], and that really the language belongs to the users.
    Jackie: The best thing I’ve learned from the Allusionist is that the dictionary is a record and not a rule book! And language is too dynamic and complex for there to be a right and a wrong. And I overuse this in arguments all the time, especially with my husband Chad.
    Chad: it’s true.

  13. Leying: One of my favourite things you’ve taught me about language is the tension between prescriptivism and descriptivism when it comes to writing dictionaries, such that, when it came up in conversation the other day that Merriam-Webster has added a second definition of ‘literally’, to not just mean ‘literally’ or ‘actually’ but also to mean ‘in fact’ or ‘virtually’ or - shock horror - ‘figuratively’, I was able to suppress the rage that was bubbling within and realized that no, it's okay; dictionaries are supposed to describe the way that we use language rather than prescribe it, even though it was physically hurting me within. Literally.
    HZ: I’m still coming to terms with the rage, but yes; I’ve accepted that language changes and I can either be angry and resist it or, not. (Pedant in recovery. Pedant in recovery.)

  14. HZ: Dictionaries: can’t trust them, they’ve got deliberately fake words, or mountweazels, as copyright traps, as we learned about in episode 7.

  15. Laura: Eponyms! [There are several episodes about eponyms.]
    Noah: Eponyms, which I didn’t even know existed, and that gave me such a cool appreciation for so many words that were based off names.

    Alaric: My favourite thing I learned from your show was all about eponyms. It’s led to many discussions and perhaps arguments with coworkers and family members about the use of eponyms.
    HZ: I emailed back to ask what these arguments are about, and he said: “It's mostly about the shoddy descriptions of screw drivers when they're referred to as their eponyms. If I asked a kid to "pass me the phillips screwdriver" vs. "pass me the plus/cross screwdriver" I feel one describes the object better than the other. Some coworkers disagree. We've ran around in circles quite a bit discussing this.” I don’t know whether you or your colleagues are arguing that plus or cross is a more intuitive description than Phillips, but I do agree with it. Especially given that you can have plus screws and minus screws, the flat heads. But

  16. HZ: The Phillips whose name is on the screws and screwdrivers is Henry F. Phillips of Portland, Oregon. He didn’t invent the cross-head screws - that was John P. Thompson, patented the screw in 1932 and the matching screwdriver in 1933. It did not catch on. So he sold the patent to Henry F Phillips in 1935, who must have been quite the marketing whiz, because the following year it was used in Cadillacs, and as a result it became THE screw trend of the American automobile industry, and within a few years it was the most popular screw in the world. Could’ve been the Thompson-head screw. Who deserves the eponym - the inventor or the populariser?

  17. HZ: Actually, the Phillips-head screw wasn’t even the first cross-head screw; the Frearson screw predated it, it was invented some time in the later half of the 19th century by John Frearson, a British engineer and temperance campaigner. The frearson screwheads are a less rounded cross than the phillips, and a little deeper; also known as reed and prince, after the company that patented the frearson screw. But unless you’re a real screw-head head, you’re probably calling them phillips screws.

  18. HZ: Canada, I didn’t forget about your favourite screwhead, the robertson, with the square indentation; that’s named after Peter Lymburger Robertson, the travelling tool salesman who invented them in 1908.

  19. Haley: I definitely use ‘guy’ - I call people “you guys” all the time - and I had no idea it was an eponym. [Episode 65: Who’s that Guy?]
    Sarah: And somehow I never connected it with Guy Fawkes, so it’s really interesting, the journey that word has gone on to what it means today.

  20. HZ: A few more quick eponyms: the saxophone is named after its inventor Adolphe Sax. He also invented the saxhorn, saxotromba, and saxtuba which didn’t all catch on.

  21. HZ: Sideburns are named after Ambrose Burnside, the American civil war general and first president of the NRA.

  22. HZ: The G-spot is named in tribute to the German gynaecologist Ernst Gräfenberg, who did a lot of research on the role of the urethra in orgasm. Also in 1929, he invented an early form of IUD, made from silk and silver. Luxe!

  23. HZ: Speaking of names:
    Gabe: My favourite thing I’ve learned on your show was the Icelandic naming conventions [episode 87: Name v. Law]; that was super interesting. And also in that series, about the guy named Peregrine [episode 83: Yes, As In], that’s really stuck with me.

  24. HZ: One of my favourite episodes was hearing you listeners tell the stories of why you changed your names [episode 88: Name Changers]. And indeed:

  25. Turns out I’m always interested in anyone’s opinions about their names. We’ve all got names! Probably got some thoughts and feelings about the names. [Episode 86: Name Therapy.]

  26. Frances: it’s never an acronym.
    HZ: It is sometimes an acronym. The full text of Zaltzman’s first law: it’s almost never an acronym, especially if it’s pre-20th century. [Acronyms come up in various episodes, but particularly episode 64: Technobabble and episode 92: To Err is Human.]

  27. HZ: But words like laser, scuba, taser - and the care in ‘care package’, those are all acronyms.

  28. HZ: The classic four-letter swears are NOT acronyms.

  29. HZ: At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, they use a lot of TLAs - Three-Letter Acronyms - of which, using the English alphabet, there could be 17,576. [Episode 64: Technobabble]

  30. HZ: the distinction between initialisms and acronyms can do one. Is it helpful? It is NOT HELPFUL.

  31. Mikel: Shelley Jackson’s Skin Project from episode 85 has me on the lookout for visible single-word tattoos, with or without punctuation.
    HZ: I was very excited after the skin project episode went out and several people sent me pictures of their tattoos that are part of it. And it’s not finished yet, you can still apply!

  32. HZ: Mince: the word derives from Latin ‘minutus’ meaning small, because you’re chopping a thing up very small.

  33. HZ: ‘Bankrupt’ comes from Italian ‘banca rotta’, which means ‘broken bench’.

  34. Noah: [episode 21] Vocables: words that aren’t really words that we can just use for sounds.
    HZ: dodobedoo!

  35. Amir: I listened to the whole back catalogue, and when I think of the episode from which I learned the most, the obvious one that comes to my mind is [episode 14] Behave, the one about cognitive behavioural therapy, in which Jane Gregory, a therapist, she speaks about using tricks involving grammar and letters and music, to help people get rid of unpleasant emotions that are caused by certain words. The connection between linguistics and psychology fascinates me.

  36. HZ: Also in that episode I learned that tennis used to be played with the palm of the hand instead of a racquet.

  37. HZ: However, ‘racquet’ also used to mean ‘palm of the hand’

  38. HZ: ‘Seance’ is from French, a session, from the Old French seoir, to sit. Be sure to be sitting comfortably when contacting the spirits.

  39. Charlie: The whole thing about ‘mouse’ going to ‘mice’, which I’m convinced I understand but despite having listened back about nine times, I don’t know how to explain it to anybody I try to explain it to. So it made me feel really clever, but also really stupid. [Episode 95: Verisimilitude.]

  40. HZ: Also in that episode, featuring David J Peterson who constructs languages for films and TV shows including Game of Thrones, I learned that constructing languages is something I will never be clever or diligent enough to do.

  41. Oscar/Gleb: language can have a philosophy behind it - I’m talking of course about Toki Pona [episode 25].
    Noah: I have actually tried to learn a little bit of it, which I was doing for about two days and then I kind of gave up, so I don't remember any of it. But the point is I learned about it; it seemed cool; I put some time into trying to learn it, although I don't know any of it now.  

  42. HZ: And from Toki Pona I learned that when I’m trying to use a minimalist language, when it’s not an option to crack jokes or arrange words quickly and spit them out, I have NOTHING left. Apparently all I am is a cloud of quips, not an actual person.

  43. Laura: The best thing I've learned about language from the Allusionist is how Americans and British people use ‘please’ differently [episode 33: Please]. Ever since I heard it, I've never been able to stop thinking about it; every time I say ‘please’ to an American person, I think, “Maybe I shouldn't be doing this?”
    HZ: I’m paralysed into inaction now when ordering at US restaurants. I say thank you a lot instead.
    Angie: I use ‘please’ more like a British person, apparently, and never really realised it until I listened to the episode, and started noticing in social situations that I was sprinkling it in while my fellow Americans were not.

  44. Angie: I just love the etymology of the word ‘turkey’ [2018 quiz]. I think that is the most fascinating piece of trivia, and I've broken it out at many occasions only to be looked at quizzically but so be it.

  45. HZ: Step. That episode [15] was a surprise to me, during a bout of insomnia, I looked up the step in stepchild or stepparent and found it meant ‘grief’. I know some of you use different terms; since the episode, I’ve been borrowing ‘bonus’.

  46. Harry: Listening to the Allusionist, I learned someone can be smart without being a smartarse.

  47. HZ: ‘Smart’ has meant clever for some 700 years, but its etymology is from the Old English for pain. Because smarts are a cutting wit. And yes, it is painful, yes.

  48. HZ: A ‘lesbian rule’ was a flexible metal stick used by stonemasons. [Episode 12: Pride.]

  49. Cameron: Portmanteaus.
    Jonas: The one about portmanteaus was the most influential to me. I’ve definitely used it in a few conversations since.
    Noah: Portmanteaus - I learned that was a term that exists.
    HZ: And I learned that it was Lewis Carroll who coined it! Since the episode about that tasty but controversial portmanteau, brunch [episode 11], I’ve been collecting portmanteaus - mostly horrible ones, squagel, dunkaccino, striminels, brogurt, and other words that hopefully will never catch on. But not all are bad:

  50. HZ: Endorphin: endogenous and morphine

  51. HZ: Tanzania, after the unification of Tanganyika and Zanzibar in 1964

  52. HZ: Electrocution: electro- from electricity and -cute from ‘execute’.

  53. HZ: Imagineer: a portmanteau of imagination and engineer, to mean someone who devises imaginative new technologies or concepts, such as the attractions at a Disney park - Disney did not coin the word, but they sure did trademark it. [Episode 16: Word Play.]

  54. HZ: My favourite portmanteau discovery: ‘Velcro’ is a portmanteau - of velour and crochet.

  55. Mikel: A big thank you to you and Susie Dent for reminding us of poor John Dennis getting his thunder stolen in episode 92 [To Err is Human].
    HZ: That was a very literal idiom

  56. HZ: Also very literal: ‘log in’, after the log on a knotted rope that would be thrown overboard from a ship to measure its speed - calculated by the length of rope unspooled over a particular time - and that would be logged in the log book. [Episode 17: Fix part I.]

  57. Brian: My favourite thing I've learned on the Allusionist is the seasonal gain and loss of language from Antarctica. [Episode 41: Getting Toasty.]

  58. Brian: Though your look at the politics of pronouns and dead names of our transgender citizens is a close second. [Episode 88: Name Changers.

  59. Jeff: What I have learned is that ‘they’ can be used to refer to a singular person.

  60. HZ: Namaste [episode 55] just means ‘hello’. And after making the episode about it, I heard from several yoga teachers asking, “What am I supposed to do now?”

  61. HZ: Replacing letters with Z is known as ‘zazzification’. [Episode 60: Zillions.]

  62. HZ: The verb ‘to pith’ means "to kill by piercing the spinal cord”.

  63. HZ: ‘orange’ the fruit came before ‘orange’ the colour, which used to be called yellow-red. [Episode 11: Brunchtime.]

  64. HZ: The 2000-year-old equivalent of subtweeting was writing a curse on a piece of lead and throwing it into the sacred hot spring in the city of Bath. [Episode 68: Curse Soup.]

  65. Christopher: My favourite, and definitely most quoted fact I’ve learned from the podcast, is that swearing has analgesic properties, which is fucking great news. See, I feel better already! [Episode 74: Take a Swear Pill.]
    HZ: That was a popular one.

  66. HZ: The first known written instance of the word ‘bullshit’ is by TS Eliot! [Episode 4: Detonating the C-Bomb.]

  67. Brent: The Allusionist episode about detonating the C bomb taught me that we’re only conditioned to think that the -unt word is the worst word in the world. Interestingly, on the ABC, on Easter Sunday, the ABC - the Australian Broadcasting Corporation - dropped the C-word twice!
    HZ: What was the context? “Christ is risen, to show the cunts who crucified him”?
    Brent: And I can’t even say it! I’m just going to say it. Cunt.

  68. HZ: I also learned that if you make an episode about the cunt-word, it doesn’t matter what else you ever make, that’s the only one people remember.

  69. HZ: Pelvis is from the Latin ‘bucket’

  70. HZ: Penis is from the Latin ‘little tail’

  71. HZ: Vagina is from the Latin for ‘sheath’ or ‘husk’. [69-71 all from episode 51: Under the Covers part II.]

  72. Edward: ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ is a dangerous, dangerous song. [Episode 58: Eclipse.]

  73. Rick: The most memorable and interesting Allusionist story for me was episode 58, Eclipse, and this is the one about aphasia. And it's interesting to me because it was in this episode that I first heard of the possibility of finally shushing my internal monologue. I've learned that language is as much a product of our anatomy as it is a product of our societal circumstance. Since then I've secretly wanted to spend a day being wordless, because Lauren Marks just makes it sound so appealing. But just a day though.
    HZ: Yeah, maybe try meditation rather than having an aneurysm? Although another thing I learned:

  74. HZ: Before I interviewed Lauren, about the aneurysm that caused her to lose all but forty or so words of her vocabulary, I expected it to be a very sad story. But she expressed a profound joy about both the wordlessness, and then the rediscovery of language during her recovery. And her experience is certainly not everyone’s experience of a brain injury, but it’s comforting to know that those experiences aren’t always negative either.

  75. HZ: I have to look up the spelling of ‘haemorrhage’ every single time.

  76. Maya: One thing I’ve learned from the Allusionist was about the Oulipo, the French society that do weird things like writing poems using only one vowel. After hearing that, in the episode [84] Trammels, I tried writing one, and succeeded somewhat. I used the the vowel A, because it seemed the easiest one, and I wrote a poem called ‘Alan and Amy’.

  77. HZ: Around the late 1400s, ‘denial’ replaced the word ‘deniance’, presumably so that all your ‘denial is not a river in Egypt’ slogan T-shirts made sense.

  78. HZ: Black holes are not black; they’re some of the brightest things in the universe. [Episode 64: Technobabble.]

  79. Rebecca: I’m a flautist and I love nature, so was pleased to learn that the archaic meaning of ‘embouchure’ is the mouth of a river. Thanks! [Episode 98: Alter Ego.]

  80. HZ: Reading Agatha Christie books is good for the health! I knew it in my heart, but it’s good to have it confirmed. [Episode 82: A Novel Remedy.]

  81. HZ: ‘Halcyon’ goes all the way back to the ancient Greek mythological character Alcyone. Her husband Ceyx was killed when Zeus threw a thunderbolt at his ship, and in her grief Alcyone threw herself into the sea. The gods changed the couple into kingfishers, halcyon birds, and just as any newbie might make mistakes, Alcyone built her nest on the beach where the waves threatened to wash it away. So her dad Aeolus prevented storms from happening during the last seven days of the old year and the first seven of the new year, so Alcyone could lay her eggs. Those days are the halcyon days. Now you might be yelling, “That’s nonsense! Kingfishers don’t build nests! They nest in holes or dig tunnels in the ground or trees or termite mounds - and the longest known kingfisher tunnel is 8.5m long! That’s impressive. Not your wind god dad doing you a favour. I call bullshit on this whole story.”

  82. Gabriella: The best thing I've learned from the Allusionist is definitely from the most recent episode [99] Polari, and I'm quite ashamed to admit this but I didn't know that barnet as in hair, had came from the Cockney rhyming slang Barnet Fair. And to make things worse, my dad is from Barnet.

  83. HZ: ‘Vogue’ came from the Old French voguer, to sway or set sail or row. How did that come to mean fashion? Well, you’re borne along by the tide of a trend.

  84. HZ: The athletic event ‘long jump’ used to be called ‘broad jump’, but was changed because ‘broad’ was considered so derogatory to women. [Episode 3: Going Viral.]

  85. Benjamin: Your collaboration with Earlonne Woods of Ear Hustle, where he goes through a dictionary of sorts of words that he uses in San Quentin state prison. [Episode 75: Ear Hustling.]
    HZ: Indubitably.

  86. Benjamin: And [episode 77] Survival part 1, where you talk about a group of Welsh peoples that immigrated to a part of Patagonia in Argentina. And you talk about their struggles using Welsh in both Wales and in Argentina.
    Maxime: The Welsh language, spoken in South America, and the fact that languages do travel. And the fact the further you travel from your homeplace, the more original the language is. I’m French, and I’m working in Brussels; I speak German; I know a bit of Swedish also. French is a language that appears everywhere, and so does English, and I’m always happy to be reminded of that, that there’s this interconnection between all of these languages that we spoke, and we borrow stuff from each other. And it’s really really nice, and I love it.

  87. HZ: I learned that some people really predicate a lot of their identity on the Oxford comma. Perhaps consider having a personality instead?

  88. HZ: ‘Radish’ shares an etymological root with ‘radical’. The root is, er, root. [Episode 30: US Election Lexicon.]

  89. HZ: ‘Poll’ is from ‘hair’.

  90. HZ: ‘Ballot’ is from ‘ball’ because people used to cast votes with black or white balls. [89 & 90 both from episode 10: Election Lexicon.]

    We’re nearly there. Ten more to go.

  91. HZ: 700 years ago, ‘nice’ meant ‘stupid’ or ignorant. There’s nothing stupid about being nice, people!

  92. HZ: Machines are better at spotting fake online reviews than trusting, gullible humans. Machines like computers trained to do it, not a toaster or an electric toothbrush. [Episode 96: Trust.]

  93. HZ: Jeff Bezos originally named his company Amazon ‘Cadabra’, as in ‘abracadabra’; but changed it because his lawyer misheard it as ‘cadaver’. [Episode 37: Brand It.]

  94. HZ: I still don’t use emoji, and I know that my inability to understand emoji is leaving me ignorant about a whole swathe of communication. If you want to keep a secret from me, just put it in emoji. [Episode 13: Mixed Emojions.]

  95. HZ: Victorians sent Christmas cards with bacon or dead mice on the front, as well as such festive scenes as children at their parents’ funeral, or people being attacked by giant wasps and poker-wielding clowns. Merry Christmas! [Episode 26: Xmas Man.]

  96. HZ: Or, Merry Winterval! Which was not political correctness gone mad. [Episode 48: Winterval.]

  97. HZ: Indefinite hyperbolic numerals. I had never consciously thought about those before listener Stephen Chrisomalis got in touch. And now, whenever I hear someone say ‘zillion’ or ‘squillion’, I think, “That’s a thing!” [Episode 60: Zillions.]

  98. Not an indefinite hyperbolic number: twelfty. That’s a synonym for the old hundred, the long hundred, which was six score or 120. That’s right, the word hundred used to mean 120. That was the Old Norse hundred, but the Christian hundred was five score, or the current one hundred. And for a while in English, hundred could mean either one hundred or one hundred and twenty. So if you’re thinking, “Words are slippery eels, but at least I can rely on numbers just to mean one thing, right, right??” No.

  99. Yajna: When I first started listening to the Allusionist, I thought I'd be learning more English language rules that I could ride around with on my high horse, beating people with my superior knowledge. But the more I listened, the more I realized that language is so much less about fixed rules and being right. I never knew splitting infinitives was a carryover taboo due to its form in Latin, and mortifyingly that the Americans are the ones who stayed true to the original spelling of words like ‘realize’ and ‘organize’. I learned instead about people, and how their ideas shaped their words, and how their words can shape their thoughts; and some of the ridiculous origins of expressions and how language is constantly evolving, and seeing that everything you say is less about language and more about people. Because ultimately, I suppose, language is how we relate to each other. And I love that.  

  100. Rachel: ‘Arseropes’. What a wonderful word for the human intestines! Why don’t we use it still? [Episode 92: To Err is Human.]
    HZ: That’s the Allusionist legacy, isn’t it? ‘Arse ropes’.


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