Today’s show is the annual bonus episode. The people who appear on this show often tell me things that aren’t necessarily related to that episode’s topic but I think, ooh, that was interesting, stash it away for the annual bonus episode, which is NOW!Read More
GREG JENNER: ‘Dickensian’ is quite a tricky word, actually. I think we don’t always necessarily know what we mean when we say it. As a word it conjures up poverty, perhaps; a sense of squalor; a sense of people trapped in this brutal society where there is no safety net, no fall-back plan; where children and women can suddenly be cast into a life of poverty or crime or violence. But 'Dickensian' also should summon up some of the beautiful things as well, some of the wonderful things he harnesses. When we look at A Christmas Carol, the way he depicts the street scenes, singing to each other, the sense of community, the shop windows filled to the brim with delicious goods and treats to eat on Christmas day and toys, this is also a bountiful visual iconography. Dickens conjured up both quite alarming and also quite enrapturing, entrancing visions of what a city and a community could be. So 'Dickensian' tends to be quite negative, but it should apply to all the different worlds that Dickens created, and some of those were rather pleasant and lovely, and some of those were rather cruel and dark.
KATIE MINGLE: What's the deal with Christmas?
AVERY TRUFELMAN: Dickens?
KATIE MINGLE: Yeah.
HZ: Yeah! A lot of authors have written about Christmas, but don’t have festive fairs devoted to them. Why is Dickens the one who gets to be the adjective? Why is he given credit for Christmas?
GREG JENNER: Charles Dickens's Christmases are not brand new in 1843. You know one of the things people often say is Dickens invented Christmas, which is absolute nonsense, of course he didn't.Read More
Somebody has really ticked you off. You're all steamed up inside and you want to vent that rage using words, but you don't want to confront them directly because you're either too polite or too cowardly. So do you:
A. Subtweet them.
B. With your finger, scrawl an insulting message into the dirt on their car.
C. Get a small sheet of lead, scratch into it a message cursing your enemies, roll it up and throw it into your nearest sacred spring?
Oh, I forgot to mention that it's 1700-2000 years ago and you're living in the Ancient Roman Empire, so the answer is C. A lead curse tablet.Read More
MARK SHEPHERD: Some of them are so funny. Some of them read like Alan Bennett on acid. And every one has the same format. She starts off by describing the weather in England.
HZ: Classic English opener for anything.
MARK SHEPHERD: And then sets the scene. For example she'll say, "I've just done the washing up and I'm sitting down to write you a letter. It's raining outside." And she was a country girl, so she would she would mention something in nature that would show what kind of weather it is, like: "I found a ladybird on my wellington boot the other day.”
HZ: So she sets the scene with this detail, plunging you into her own head and what her eyes can see and what she can feel.
MARK SHEPHERD: And then she diverts into people in the news, things she's either seen on TV or things she's read in the newspaper. But she doesn't put any background in. She just goes straight in for it.
HZ: So you've got to understand that that is where her mind has veered off to.
MARK SHEPHERD: Without even choosing one: "People in Newcastle have been warned to keep an eye on their washing because there have been a lot of thefts of the black and white Newcastle shirts. Yesterday Yorkshire beat the West Indies." She's all over the place! "I bought my list of things to tell you." During the week she would write down lists of things to tell me, and this is what we get. "The big news today is that two doctors have performed an operation for a lady with a collapsed lung on a BA flight from Australia using a coathanger, knife and fork, sterilized with brandy. She is doing fine. Rang Kevin to say happy birthday…”
HZ: From Me To You started with a letter. Well, with one hundred letters. In June 2010, Brian was diagnosed with bowel cancer.
BRIAN GREENLEY: And Alison and I at the time were just acquaintances;
HZ: They’d met at a yoga retreat the previous year.
BRIAN GREENLEY: And Alison made a rather random offer which no one else did, which was she said that she would write letters to cheer me up, which I think was a bit strange at the time. Especially as she didn't have a history of writing letters or writing anything since she'd been eight years old. So it was quite a surprise.
ALISON HITCHCOCK: I wasn't interested in writing at all. Goodness knows why I made this offer. I can't actually remember saying it, but clearly I did say it because I do very clearly remember sitting on my sofa and thinking oh my God I said that I would write letters and I said they'd be funny and what's funny about cancer? But I've said it so I'm going to do it.
BRIAN GREENLEY: And I went home on the train thinking of a lot more things than someone's going to write me a letter - about what my treatment was going to be, even if I was going to live; that type of thing. So I was surprised in two weeks. Two weeks later a letter arrived on my doormat from Alison, a handwritten letter. And that was the start of Alison writing to me for over two years. Over a hundred letters.
HZ: This is our third annual eponymisode. We've covered ballpoint pens in the first year. And medical eponyms in the second year. This year I chose one that surprised me, because I didn't realize it was an eponym; I thought it was a general word that became someone's name but it was actually the other way round. The word is 'guy', and the person it came from is Guy Fawkes. Do you know anything about Guy Fawkes, as an American?
ROMAN MARS: I do. Yes. The Gunpowder Plot. I know at least the edges of that story as somewhat reinforced by I'm sure completely historically accurate V for Vendetta. But yeah, I know Guy Fawkes and I know what a Guy Fawkes mask is. I had no idea that Guy Fawkes predated the use of the word 'guy' as a general person.
HZ: No, I didn't either. When you grow up in Britain, you don't know a lot more than you do as an American who had V for Vendetta. What you know is that on 5th November there are fireworks displays everywhere, and in some places they'll still have a bonfire and they'll burn a guy on it which is an effigy of a human named after Guy Fawkes who, in the early hours of 5th November 1605, was arrested for the gunpowder plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament.
ROMAN MARS: Wow.
HZ: So this general word for person that we have now came from an effigy which came from a specific person.
KATIE MACK: If you watch something like Star Trek, there's always words like the tachyon beam and the inertial compensators, and you get these really multisyllabic constructions, and that's how you know that you're not supposed to understand it, and you're supposed to just file it away as ‘complicated thing’. So I think that's the way that we signal to people that you're supposed to just take that as a given because it's technical and difficult and you're not going to get it, and therefore you don't have to fact check it in your head. I'm a physicist, so I'm not a good audience for that sort of thing; I'm clearly not objective. But I also feel like sometimes that that kind of thing can scare people away from real science. When scientific jargon stands in for "That's too complicated, I can't possibly understand it," I think that makes people think, "Oh, science is too complicated, I can't possibly understand it.”
HZ: I assume some of the motivation for this is them not wanting to break the fantasy world that they've created. So they come up with these words that seem strange enough to fit in with a different world, but still identifiable enough that the audience - and the actors - can assimilate them sufficiently without being stopped in their tracks. And I wonder, if science fiction used terms as simple as ‘black hole’ and ‘big bang’, the audience just wouldn't accept it: it might seem like the writers had failed to be imaginative, and the real terms are just too banal to seem realistic in a science fiction context.
KATIE MACK: Yeah. I wonder about that. Like if they just call it something like the heat death or the big bang or something, I think people would be like, "Eh."
HZ: Bit basic.
KATIE MACK: Yeah. Yeah.
"Accent is identity; it's a way of encoding and signaling almost completely at an unconscious level for most people, who they feel like they are, who they want to be seen as, what group they feel like they belong to."Read More
HZ: Bruce, where are we?
BRUCE: We’re in the Upper East Side of New York, at a unitarian church, for Lollapuzzoola 10 - an annual crossword puzzle tournament. It’s terrifically fun. 250 people will cram into the basement and not see daylight for six or seven hours while we do crosswords.
The first time I heard of graphology - the analysis of someone’s character through their handwriting - I was aged about 10, and I had a charity shop book called The Complete Book of Fortune. I read with interest and mild cynicism about how the layout of your moles reveals your personality, about divination from egg whites you’ve left out for 24 hours, and that it’s a portent of terrible times ahead if you dream of a walnut. The graphology chapter of this book didn’t amount to much more than “If your line of handwriting slopes upwards, you’re an optimist! If it slopes down, you’re a pessimist. If it goes up and down and up and down, you’re unstable.”
So that was my first exposure to graphology. My second exposure was in tabloids every so often, when they’d wheel out a graphologist to analyse the handwriting of serial killers. “It was a dead giveaway when he signed his name Ted Bundy.”
Let me warn you, listeners: when you are revealed to be a serial killer, whatever your handwriting is like, it will be interpreted to have been riddled with warning signs.
So, yeah, I didn’t take graphology all that seriously.
ADAM BRAND: It's known as a pseudo science.
HZ: And perhaps nor did Adam Brand, who has been a graphologist for twenty years.Read More
When we get a bit lost up among the big numbers, rather than using a specific like quadrillion or quattuorvigintillion (that has 75 zeros behind it!), we might use a word that suggests a really big number, such as zillion, jillion or squillion. These are known as indefinite hyperbolic numerals.
STEPHEN CHRISOMALIS: Indefinite hyperbolic numerals are words that have the form of numerals; they act like numerals; but as their name would suggest, they're indefinite. They don't have a definite numerical reference, and they're hyperbolic. In other words, whatever they are, however big they are, they're really big.Read More
CAETANO GALINDO: It's really difficult not to like the things you have translated, and it's not just an ego thing. The point is you had to put things apart. You had to really understand everything. Translators have no alibis. You have to at least convince yourself that you have a working explanation to everything and you have a theory to understand everything, because you cannot just skip it and say, “Oh, later we'll see how it goes.” You have to propose something; you have to offer a solution. And when you get to that level of reading, you come to love everything; you come to see what was there and that you as a reader sometimes was not able to see.
HZ: And then I guess if you're a translator you have to ignore your own ego, because if you've done your job well, you're almost invisible.
CAETANO GALINDO: Yeah! Yeah. And that may sound like some sort of a curse to some people; but to me that's probably the best part of it, because I don't have to worry about how I am being perceived or how I am coming through as a speaker or as a writer. When I write these days, I tend to be really tired of my style, my choices, my words, my sentences. But when I'm writing other people's books, they've made the tough choices for me. I only have to clothe their books or their stories with a new language, with the new prose.
LAUREN MARKS: Words were everything in my life. It was all day, every day, on stage, off stage, on the page...
HZ: Let's go back to what happened.
LAUREN MARKS: Oh, sure.
HZ: How old were you?
LAUREN MARKS: I was 27. I was an actress and a director and a PhD student in New York. And there was absolutely no warning. I mean, I was actually performing on stage when it happened. I went onstage to perform a karaoke duet.
HZ: What was the song?
LAUREN MARKS: It was ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’.
HZ: Wrong organ.
LAUREN MARKS: I know… No, it's OK to laugh, because I just really am glad I didn't die doing that. So anyways, I was on stage, I was singing... I was up, singing the song... and then I was down.
I collapsed immediately, because it was not known to me at the time but an aneurysm had ruptured in my brain and it was hemorrhaging.
HZ: An aneurysm is a weakness in a blood vessel in the brain. It’s estimated that one in fifty people have such a weakness, but most will never even know about it - only around 1 in 25,000 aneurysms causes trouble.
As she later found out, Lauren Marks had two, and one of them was that 1 in 25,000. It ruptured, and she had a stroke.
Karaoke interrupted, Lauren was taken to hospital. When she woke up, she had undergone brain surgery; but something else had changed.
LAUREN MARKS: When I woke up in the Edinburgh hospital, I had very little language: speaking, reading, writing were all dramatically affected. I probably only had about 40 or 50 words at my disposal.Read More
There’s something I trip over regularly in the Allusionist.
It comes up often in this show: “A bit of ancient Greek happened in 350 BC! A word came into English via French in 700 AD!”
That’s 350 Before Christ, 700 Anno Domini, the year of the lord (the lord also being Christ, in case you were expecting it to be the New Zealand singer Lorde).
The thing that makes me pause: Christ… he’s not my guy. I’m not religious at all. So every time I label a year BC or AD, I think, “Am I really allowed to, having not opted into the religion whose figurehead’s putative birthdate is the fulcrum for this whole system?”
And I know some of you will be screaming at me, “Helen! Just substitute BC and AD with BCE and ACE, Before Common Era and After Common Era! If it’s good enough for the United Nations, it’s good enough for you!”
But here’s my issue with BCE and ACE: they are still referring to the same Christ-based dating practices. They might not be using Christy language, but the language it is using aligns commonality with Christianity.
I’m not trying to erase the contributions of Jesus Christ to the culture in which I live. I merely want to know how he came to be so integral to our system of dating.Read More
LEE: Hello, my name is Lee. I'm a genderqueer trans masculine gay guy and it's time for me to talk to Helen Zaltzman about my genitals.
So there's actually a lot of different contexts in which genitals come up, and there's different language for each of them. For me as someone who was assigned female at birth and has a vagina has a uterus but mostly passes as male, there's a lot of different things that go into what I'm choosing to call my genitals.
LORELEI: I sometimes like to refer to my genitalia as “anachronistic”, which seems to fit perfectly. I have a friend who refers to my genitalia as “the factory-installed equipment.”Read More