Visit theallusionist.org/bonus2018 to listen to and read more about this episode.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, herd linguistic cats.
Today’s episode is the annual bonus Allusionist, featuring outtakes from some of this year’s guests saying things that were not necessarily related to the topic of the original episode, or even related to language at all, but I thought, “Hmm! Interesting!” and filed them away until THIS MOMENT.
This is not a typical episode of the Allusionist, so if this is your first time here, welcome! And do try a few different episodes of the show to get a picture. This year there have been episodes about your names, and superhero names; about how swearing can be good for your health, and so can novels; about tattoos, and typing champions; about how the drive to survive sent the Welsh language across an ocean, and the Scots language to hide at home; and many more. Thanks so much for spending time with me over 2018.
This bonus episode is usually the last of the year, but keep watch on your feed in the next few days for something special for Radiotopia’s fundraiser, which is in full swing right now, with some outstanding gifts if you donate, such as a birthday present from one of the inanimate objects from Everything Is Alive, or audio production advice from the likes of Radio Diaries, The Truth and Criminal - that’s some pretty valuable stuff, those shows are top notch. And if we reach 25,000 donors, every donor - every single donor! - gets exclusive stickers, twenty beautiful hand-painted stickers, and what I learned last fundraiser is you people LOVE stickers more than I realised anybody loves anything. So maybe you don’t even care that your donations help keep this show going, and all the other shows in the Radiotopia collective, and that you, our listeners and supporters, are an invaluable part of our podcasts, because stickers. Stickers. STICKERS!! But you only get the stickers if 25,000 of you become donors by 21 December, so zoom along to radiotopia.fm to ensure the enstickered future of you and your fellow donors. And to support independent audio. And independent audio stickers.
Thanks also to Squarespace for their support of the Allusionist this year. Pretty much exactly four years ago, I had a new project brewing. I didn’t really know then how it was going to go, but I did know it would need its own website. So the first step in getting my new project off the ground was going to Squarespace and setting up theallusionist.org - YES PEOPLE, THIS VERY SHOW, THAT’S WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT. In fact, both my podcasts began in January; new year, new projects; so if you’re brewing something, now is the time to nudge it into existence by creating a website for it. It’s like a promise to yourself that you actually will get the thing going. Head to squarespace.com/allusion for a free trial and when you’re ready to launch, use the offer code ALLUSION to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain.
There is one swear in this episode, place your bets on which one!
On with the show.
PAUL ANTHONY JONES: I first got introduced to language when I was about eight or nine and my grandparents bought me a dictionary for Christmas and I sat and read it cover to cover like you would read Dickens. I was just obsessed with it. It was fantastic.
HZ: This is Paul Anthony Jones, who appeared on the episode Triumph/Trumpet/Top/Fart. Under the guise of Haggard Hawks, Paul writes about words and etymology. Quite a few words have rather odd and grisly origins. Such as the slang term ‘kennedy’.
PAUL ANTHONY JONES: In 19th century slang, ‘kennedy’ was to kill someone with a poker. We don't really know an awful lot about it, apart from the fact that someone called Kennedy was killed with a poker in the early 1800s and that was enough. Who the guy was, how brutal the crime was, we don't know anything at all about it. We just know that it was enough for the word in that sense to end up in the London slang in the 1820s, 1830s, 1840s. Didn't seem to last very long, but it's found its way into the dictionary ever since. So you look up Kennedy and there you have this pretty bizarre definition before anything else.
HZ: It must have been a pretty bad death by poker. Not that there are good ones, but it must have been a bad one for it to catch on in that way.
PAUL ANTHONY JONES: Yeah. Yeah. Something has put itself into the consciousness of the city so it must have been pretty brutal, I'm guessing. But there's all sorts of words like that: if you burke someone, it means to strangle or suffocate and that comes from the Burke as in Burke and Hare, because that's where he used to do. If you bishop someone then you drown them; that was another resurrectionist who used to go around drowning people and he did that in London in the 19th century and sold the body to science, so to bishop is to drown someone. 19th century London isn't coming out of this very well.
HZ: Yes. Seems rough.
PAUL ANTHONY JONES: Yeah. Alongside these names that have become crimes because of people, ‘coventry’ is in the dictionary as a verb meaning to slit someone's nose. That comes from Sir John Coventry, who was a politician in the mid-late 1600s. And he made a comment in the House of Commons about Charles II and his relationship with Nell Gwynne; it was a pretty shady comment, and it was in a debate about taxation of the theatres; and everybody laughed, as they do in politics - apart from The Duke of Monmouth who was Charles II's son, who happened to be in the House of Commons at the time. And he wasn't too impressed with this, got together with a bunch of troops and a bunch of friends and decided to hunt John Coventry down later on that night. Coventry, of course, being a politician that stayed in the pub until 2 o'clock in the morning, then was set upon in the street and had his nose cut down to the bone underneath - it sounds pretty brutal. But he survived and was back in Parliament probably a couple of days later. But this ended up leading to an Act of Parliament called the Coventry Act, which forbad the cutting off of any member. It's phrased like that which is a bit curious; but this led to this act of parliament that made any kind of attack like this on on a member of parliament a felony, specifically made it a felony. And that remained on the statute books until early 19th century - it was on for a really long time. So this really bizarre crime on this guy in 1670, I think it was, has led to this word ending up in the dictionary. It's not a word that's particularly well used, I have to admit. But in terms of political names that have kind of ended up with very very bizarre political meanings, it's certainly up there among the strangest.
HZ: Glen Weldon appeared on the episode Supername, talking about how comic book superheroes got their names, and...their capes.
GLEN WELDON: Capes were part of this old original idea what a superhero is, because they came from this notion of the trapeze artist, the circus strongman. And back in the days of the circus, the trapeze artist would have a cape when they'd come out, as a visual flourish. But then they'd climb to the platform and the first thing they would do is they would get rid of the cape, and the cape would fall to the ground, and then they would do their stuff. So that's kind of a trend that's been followed in comics too, where before, back in the days, in the 1930s and 40s, capes capes capes capes; but as we started to bring them back in the 60s and 70s, we lost the capes.
HZ: The academic Guy Cuthbertson appeared in the episode A Novel Remedy, about how fiction can help people recover from illnesses or traumas such as the First World War. Here he talks about how that war begat a trend towards getting back to nature.
GUY CUTHBERTSON: It's about rejecting this modern world and rejecting this capitalist structure and about getting back to the land and the simple life - and that of course is still a very strong theme through the 20s and 30s and again very explicitly connected to ideas of convalescence and recovery, is this alternative way of life and getting back to nature and so on. Also this is the period of great popularity of camping as well and indeed nudism - nudism and nudist camps I think go hand in hand with that idea. The ultimate simple life is to go off on your holidays and kind of let it all hang out.
Some ideas about where it emerges from are that it came out of soldiers in the trenches where if you've been covered in mud and gore and all of that the one thing you looked forward to was actually stripping those clothes off and indeed sunbathing became quite popular when they had the chance, given that's the contrast to the usual image of trench warfare as being mud and rain.
HZ: Do you think one reason for this popularity of the idea of pastoral living and simple living was because class structure had been somewhat broken down by the First World War?
GUY CUTHBERTSON: Yeah, the strange thing about the First World War is that it reinforces class structures and breaks them down at the same time. So you get that image of everyone being in the trenches together - it is true that the son of the manor is going to be in the same trench as the guy from the factory in Manchester or whatever; but, of course, through the idea of one of them being an officer and the other being a private soldier and so on, the actual structures of society are reinforced or emphasised actually by the idea of what rank you are and indeed indeed which regiment you're in, and that there's a certain sense of snobbery attached to being in certain regiments and not in others. But going back to the land, that idea of the simple life: that is a way of breaking down all class barriers. If you're at a nudist camp, it's impossible to tell who's posh or who isn't - until they speak, I suppose - in that clothes, possessions, those are usually the indicator of where you come from in life and indeed much money you've got in your wallet. But if you've not even got a wallet on you, there is a sense of it being a way of breaking down class distinction.
HZ: Also in A Novel Remedy, clinical psychologist Jane Gregory talked about how fiction can help some people deal with conditions like obsessive compulsive disorder. And in some cases, spider phobia.
JANE GREGORY: With spider phobia, they were doing exposure treatment, and the idea behind the exposure treatment is to test out your expectations of what would happen when you're in close proximity to a spider. And so part of it is the fear that the spider will bite you; part of it is the fear that that would then be life threatening; part of the fear is that you'll freak out so much that you won't be able to cope. And so by doing the exposure, you're basically putting yourself close to a spider and testing out that prediction. And what they did was they randomized the group, and half of them watched Charlotte's Web in the middle of the treatment, and the other half just watched a neutral positive video. And the people who watched Charlotte's Web, for the second half of the treatment they got closer to the spider, they took more steps towards touching the spider, or getting really close to the spider, than the group that just watched the neutral video. And the outcomes were better for them as well - I think later on they were exposed again to a spider and their reaction to that spider was much lower than the group who didn't watch Charlotte's Web. So again it's this idea that a fiction - a fictional story - can help to change your mind about something it can help to change your expectations and change your behavior.
HZ: Charlotte's Web is a real spider redemption story.
JANE GREGORY: It's one of the few spider redemption stories out there.
HZ: Tobin Low and Kathy Tu of Nancy podcast came on the show to consider the word ‘queer’. And Tobin also talked about a time he was subjected to that infernal question, “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?”
TOBIN LOW: Oh God. There was a girl, also a fellow Asian, so it felt like a crime, a self-inflicted crime. She was like, “Where are you from?” And I was like, “Oh, my family's Chinese,” which I'm OK with just owning that if it's another Asian person. And she literally went, “No.” I was like, “I promise you!” But her follow-up was, “You're going to find out about something.” Are. You. Fucking. Kidding. Me? Is the insinuation here I'm going to find out that somebody cheated on somebody?
HZ: Or you’re secretly French?
KATHY TU: You know what that is, is that she has in her mind East Asians look a certain way.
TOBIN LOW: Yeah, that's absolutely right.
KATHY TU: And that means you have to be super light-skinned or something like that, because I feel like there's such a stigma there. I mean, I feel like all over the world it's that way.
TOBIN LOW: I was into cross-stitching for a while, and I cross-stitched a little thing that says, “I get that a lot.” Because people tell me I don’t look Chinese so much, I just cross-stitched that into a thing.
HZ: Our Song Exploding West Wing Weekler friend Hrishikesh Hirway was on the Shark Week episode dealing with listeners’ linguistic queries.
HRISHIKESH HIRWAY: OK, Helen, here's a question from Lindsey. She asks: "I have a question about a word where a basic Google search has failed me.”
HZ: “So I'm deferring the basic Google search to you.”
HRISHIKESH HIRWAY: "The word is 'gig' and it shows up in two very unrelated parts of her life. First she says, "My fiance is a musician and makes upright basses." That's cool. "I've been with him on several trips to drop off basses with symphonies in the US and I've noticed that all musicians refer to jobs as 'gigs' -" That's true. That checks out. I can confirm - "whether the job is music related or not. For example, they'll talk about their new gig at a different symphony, and they'll also ask me about my new gig as a professor at a university, which is in a business school, so no music there."
HZ: I think this is quite common because now you have the gig economy -
HRISHIKESH HIRWAY: That's true.
HZ: - which is a euphemism for insecure freelance work where people are taken advantage of.
HRISHIKESH HIRWAY: Yeah. It's just like a kind of silly musician thing, you know? All musicians want to be cool and it's cooler to say 'gig', and it makes you feel like you're more of a professional musician, and that need for legitimacy comes from these external things, "Yeah, I got a gig." And then, because you are so deep into that lifestyle and that word, everything becomes a gig. You know? It's almost even better to be so cool that you apply the word 'gig' even in contexts like this, the professor at a university, in the business school, that's your gig.
HZ: Do you think some of that behaviour might be because when you're in an arts profession, but you're doing jobs to make ends meet that not related to that, you want it to feel like it's all of a piece rather than those are a mark of failure and this separate thing to your main line of work?
HRISHIKESH HIRWAY: Right. Even if it is temporary, just like, "Oh, I've got a gig tonight. And then in the morning I'm gonna go show up at my gig at Starbucks."
HZ: Yeah. You're trying to create consistency in an inconsistent career path.
HRISHIKESH HIRWAY: Maybe, maybe. Let me go on to the next part of it. She says: "Secondly, I am a lifelong horseback rider. I ride dressage. But recently my mom has gotten into driving horses and now she's looking to buy a gig, which is also a type of cart apparently for the horse to pull. I'd greatly appreciate any insight. Are these two uses related? It seems like as soon as I noticed the word it started appearing everywhere."
HZ: These two types of gig are not related. The employment gig is from music. It's early 1900s jazz scene vocabulary, and it was an abbreviation of 'engagement', as in an engagement to do some work, rather than marital.
HRISHIKESH HIRWAY: Right. Right.
HZ: The other kind of gig, like Lindsay's mom is planning to buy, the little cart, is from a sense of gig that meant things that whirled around or spun.
HRISHIKESH HIRWAY: Like a whirligig? Is that where 'whirligig' comes from?
HZ: Yeah. Which was a child's toy. But gig was the same thing, so a spinning top as well. That's several hundred years old. And so anything that whirled around, or is dangerous or unstable, was described as a gig. So presumably these carts, the gigs - they were higher, I think, than a lot of horse drawn carts, so maybe they were a little more perilous.
HRISHIKESH HIRWAY: Like when all those SUV were toppling over.
HZ: Yes. Stay low, people! Stay low to the ground. And then 'gig' was also an insult for young women, young flighty unpredictable women, as an extension of that meaning.
HRISHIKESH HIRWAY: Oh, because they were also unstable?
HRISHIKESH HIRWAY: And just whirled around?
HZ: Just whirled around. Very Dizzy.
HRISHIKESH HIRWAY: I've never heard of it in that context.
HZ: No I think that's one that has slipped out of use. And then 'gig' is also a little type of boat that was a ship's captain's special taxi boat. But again, presumably from the same 'a bit unstable' meaning.
HRISHIKESH HIRWAY: Interesting. So, Lindsey, they're not related; but they unite in you.
HZ: And that’s it! The Allusionist vaults are closing. Please, rejoin me in 2019.
Now, listeners, something I've always been interested in is mythology. Love a story of gods, monsters - or gods that are also monsters, that's a popular trope. Different ways of explaining the shape of our world. But I don't know anything about how myths came about, so hooray for the new podcast Mythology, from Parcast, which delves into the history and meaning of ancient myths from many different cultures: Egyptian, Norse, Japanese, Sumerian, and many more. You can hear the first episode now, about the Greek goddess Athena, and, coming up: Loki! The Epic of Gilgamesh! Osiris and Isis! There are new episodes every Tuesday - Tuesday named after the Norse god Tyr or Tiwaz, myth fans. Listen and subscribe to Mythology in your podcatcher of choice, or find it at parcast.com/mythology.
The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a collective of the finest podcasts around. I’m a big fan of my sibling shows: they are all beautiful, adventurous, smart, wry, and never waste my time as a listener. If you want to help us keep going, become a donor. This show was born thanks to your generosity during the network’s 2014 fundraiser: you gave Radiotopia enough money to let me start this show. So your money really makes things happen that otherwise wouldn’t, and we are eternally grateful for that. Any amount of money helps, so if you can afford to donate, scoot over to radiotopia.fm.
Without you, we podcasts are nothing, so for you, precious listeners, your randomly selected word from the dictionary today is:
quillet, noun: a subtlety in argument; a quibble.
Try using it in an email today.
As aforementioned, there’ll be one more special Allusional thing landing in your podfeed this year, and the show proper returns on 23 January 2019. And on 25 January, I’ll be debuting an exciting new Allusionist live show in San Francisco at the Brava Theater as part of SF Sketchfest, I’ll link to tickets at theallusionist.org/events.
In the meantime, convene with me at facebook.com/allusionistshow and twitter.com/allusionistshow is the handle. And for every episode and additional materials pertaining to each topic, transcripts, the full dictionary entries for the randomly selected words, and everything Allusional, visit the show’s forever home theallusionist.org.