For all the information about this episode, and to hear it, visit theallusionist.org/diaries.
HZ: This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, ask language, “Did it hurt when you fell from heaven?”
Coming up in today’s show: cringing and catharsis. Let’s prepare for that with a little etymology sponsored by Passion House Coffee Roasters, who’ve divided up their coffees into three different genres: Ambient, Mainstream and Experimental. So you can match the beans to your mood, or, because you’re a multifaceted human being, you can get a selection of beans from all three genres freshly roasted and delivered to you. You can even order a subscription, for a monthly, bimonthly or weekly dispatch of coffee beans, and you can get 20% off any subscription by visiting passionhousecoffee.com and using the offer code ALLUSIONIST.
Thanks to Passion House Coffee Roasters, you get a jolt of caffeine and etymology, because to set you up for today’s episode, here’s the history of 'embarrassment'. The word, not the emotional state, which I imagine is the same age as consciousness.
The word is relatively recent - the first recorded usage of ‘embarrass’ conveying awkwardness and shame is only from 1828, although it had been around for a while before that; its first known written appearance in English was in Samuel Pepys’s diary of 1664, when ‘embarrass’ meant there was some sort of blockage or hindrance or confusion.
English got it from French, which got it from Spanish (in which it now means ‘pregnant’, maybe because you’re blocked by a baby?), and then it gets tricky. I’ve read two theories: the first, that the Spanish ‘embarazar’ evolved from the Latin word ‘barra’, a bar, so you were hindered or imprisoned by bars; and, analogously, in the modern sense of ‘embarrassed’ you’re imprisoned or hindered by your shame. The second, that it’s from the Portuguese ‘embaraçar’, in which the baraça means a rope or a noose. Some people therefore posit that the modern sense of ‘embarrass’ comes from the historical punishment of having to go around wearing a noose, displaying your shame to everybody. I think, given the journey of the word from the Portuguese to 19th century English, this might be a bit of a leap. But not as much of a leap as the one made by the surprisingly large number of people who think, “It’s obviously from someone’s skirt being wafted up by the wind, so they were em-bare-assed”: NO. Has our time together meant nothing to you? Don’t be misled by superficial similarities. I know it’s comforting to find patterns in the world, but don’t embarrass yourself.
And today’s Radiotopian special guests are, I’d say, students of embarrassment.
NEIL KATCHER: Hi, this is Neil.
DAVE NADELBERG: And this is Dave.
NK: And you’re listening to Mortiflusionist.
HZ: Neil and Dave run Mortified. It started as a stage show in 2002, and as of this year, there’s been a podcast as well, featuring those brave people who get up there and read out the things they wrote as teenagers: letters, plays, and most of all, diaries.
Through history, diaries have been extremely valuable sources of social and linguistic information - like the aforementioned diary of Samuel Pepys, thanks to which historians can glean a lot of little details about 17th century life in London, as well as big events he witnessed such as the Great Plague and the fire of London, and trace words such as ‘embarrass’. Over the years of Mortified, Neil and Dave have read thousands of diaries from the past few decades, so I wanted to find out what they’ve learned.
NK: We have seen the evolution of how teenagers write and express themselves over the past 30 years. There are certain words and phrases that have popped up that were not there originally. In the first five years of Mortified, ‘lol’ started popping up, and that’s such a computer-age term, that I’d never even heard before computers.
HZ: Yes, ‘lol’ has been used to mean ‘laugh out loud’ since it sprang up in Usenet forums in the 1980s, but it was around in the 1960s as well, as a medical abbreviation for ‘little old lady’. Not only that, LOLINAD meant 'Little Old Lady In No Apparent Distress', and LOLFDGB stood for 'Little Old Lady, Fall Down Go Boom'. Not the most sensitive diagnosis.
NK: And at some point, kids also started spelling ‘cool’, ‘kewl’.
HZ: That point was the early 1990s..
NK: And the use of emojis - there was a girl sharing Livejournal with us, and she got really into the early days of emoji, but she was completely misusing them. “Today’s mood: pineapple!”
HZ: It takes us a while to learn how to use our new toys. But where do the online options fit into the long tradition of diary-writing?
DN: I always feel that blogs, as in personal blogs rather than eg fashion blogs, are more magazine or newspaper columns more than diaries, because they know there’s a theoretical audience. Even if it’s a Livejournal page from 1998 with an audience of 15, there’s still an audience of 15.
HZ: For most people, typing is quicker than writing by hand, so when keeping a digital journal, public or not, your writing is more likely to be able to keep up with the speed of your thoughts. Does that change the results?
NK: I think it does. Writing on a computer is closer to the speed in which my mind processes whatever thoughts I’m going through. Writing it down in a notebook is too slow for me, so I get frustrated because I’m seven thoughts ahead of what I’m actually writing down in a notebook. So I’d prefer a blank word processing page, so I could much more consistently get my stream of consciousness out.
DN: Do you think that that, though, that built-in filter of your brain that can’t keep up with your pen vs typing, and it can all spill out, I wonder if that filter is helpful in some way. I wonder if there’s a benefit that we can’t fart out anything onto the page, because our hand can be so selective.
NK: I think it does, I think it forces you to slow your thoughts down and maybe organise them a little more than you might in a word processing document. It might create a desire to sound more eloquent.
HZ: And it is more of a pain to edit it. So you have to try to get it right first time.
DN: I think back to people with typewriters, even electric typewriters: the words were not as disposable. Right now, I could type a whole paragraph and just toss it; I don’t have to worry about having to retype it all if I just need to change two words. I think there’s this notion of the disposability of words that digital text-based communication has created; and I’m not a Luddite, I think that’s fine, it’s just a different thing. But there’s this value, now more than ever, like vinyl albums, where seeing handwritten text is a fetishized object.
NK: When you wrote a diary 20, 30 years ago and kept an actual physical diary somewhere in your room, and you had to hide it so nobody else could read it, the scariness of keeping a diary with the idea it might be found and become public in some way - keeping a physical diary seemed like a scary, almost public thing to do. But nowadays, keeping a physical diary somewhere in your room is so much less public than any other form of communication.
HZ: The awkward conflict between public and private has prevented me from ever keeping a personal diary. Whenever I tried, I found that I was almost immediately stymied by not knowing to whom to pitch it. The notion of anyone else reading it was so appalling, I couldn’t address it to another person, even an imaginary one; but the prospect of myself reading it in the future was, well, mortifying, with or without an audience to witness it. But just writing it to no one didn’t come naturally to me. How does everyone else deal with this?
NK: It varies. Everyone writes in their journal in a different way. Some people are writing to their journal as if it’s a friend, so they’re writing to that friend.
HZ: Like Anne Frank.
DN: A lot of girls - and men - have been inspired by Anne Frank calling her diary ‘Kitty’, as if the diary is a person.
NK: That’s one way. And some people write as if they’re talking to the world, talking to a much larger audience. And then some people write as if they’re just talking to themselves.
DN: I’m fascinated by the habits people keep. There’re habits I think that form, that dictate how people talk. Not only do people talk to their diaries, they’ll sometimes name their diaries, and each diary will have a different name. Usually it’s women who do this. Some will name all of their diaries ‘Barbara’; others, every time they get a new diary, their first diary is called ‘Barbara’, the second one ‘Clara’ - I don’t know why I’m picking names from the 1950s. Then the weirder thing is, Jill Krenshaw is someone who performs on our show, all her diaries are men, ‘Ivan’ - always Russian names too, I don’t know what that was about. Sasha Rothschild who performs on our show, her diary is called ‘diary’, but she can only write in purple pen, ever since she was eight.
HZ: Right, so if you manage to find a narrative voice, and you’ve got the perfect pen with which to write in Cynthia or Vladmir, what then? What are you keeping a diary for?
NK: I did not keep a diary as a kid or a teenager, but I did keep journals after college, when I was trying to figure out what to do with my life, in my early-mid 20s - what we in America call our quarter-life crisis. I was keeping it as an outlet to be creative, but also a place to try to work out...um...I may have just kept it as a way not to stare at girls on the subway because I was living in New York! No, I think I was just working through - I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do for my life, or what I thought I was going to be doing when I graduated college; so it was just this outlet for me to work out my feelings about feeling like a failure in life.
HZ: What’s it like reading them back?
NK: It’s a confirmation you still are that same person you were 15 years ago. I definitely wish I would’ve kept a journal in my elementary, junior high and high school years. You know, when you have so many years removed from certain periods of your life, you don’t really remember what it was really like. Your brain eliminates so many memories, you’re only left with specific moments. What a diary gives you is these moments of minutiae, which you managed to write down. The minutiae open up a part of your memory that is more deeply locked away, and allows you to connect to who you were as a kid which your normal memory can’t do. That’s what I wish I could’ve kept.
HZ: So let’s hear the Mortified pro tips for writing a diary.
NK: Make sure you do two things. Write about the actual event - actually describe what you’re writing about, describe the event or the concrete thing that happened, then also analyze it; write about the emotional impact of it. But don’t just do one of these things. If you just write about your emotions in your journal, and it’s not rooted to actual experiences, it’s not that helpful. And it’s almost not helpful if you do the reverse, if you’re just writing down your experiences as a list. Write down your experiences, but make sure to include your perspective, and yourself almost as a character in it. Those are very important when you look back at it. Include the event, and also yourself in the event. Our memories don’t always place us as a character in those memories, but a journal does.
DN: Whatever you’re thinking, don’t censor yourself. Spill your guts out onto the page. It doesn’t mean it’ll be enjoyable to anybody or yourself in the future or the present; but I do think it’s really useful getting stuff out. A lot of us are so arrogant, “Oh I understand my issues.” Only when you get it out of your noggin do you understand it. You need to see your life in the third person. And that’s something a journal does.
HZ: Dave Nadelberg and Neil Katcher run Mortified. It’s a stage show that may be on in a town near you, it’s a documentary that is well worth watching on Netflix, it’s a TV show, it’s books, and it’s a Radiotopian podcast that will move you and entertain you and make you want to gnaw off your own hand with embarrassment by proxy. Visit getmortified.com to find all of these things, and to volunteer to share your teenage writing and be part of a Mortified show.
Mortified aren’t the only Radiotopians who dropped in for this episode.
ROMAN MARS: Hello
HZ: Roman Mars, you’ve invited yourself back on my show. Someone's gregarious during fundraising season!
RM: It’s actually times like this that I feel the most excited about it all. When we’re fundraising, we’re all together, you remember the reason why you wanted to form a community around you - there’re really huge benefits to that.
HZ: Oh, right - you’re just using fundraising as an excuse to have friends around?
RM: Exactly! When we all get together to accomplish something, it feels really good. So that’s the part I really love.
HZ: What are we trying to accomplish?
RM: Well, we need to raise money.
HZ: What are we going to do with it?
RM: Most of that money goes to just paying for the time to do the work; because the work is really hard and really time-consuming.
HZ: It is! It’s quite hard work to make something that’s not terrible.
RM: Most of the money goes for that. The most that goes into podcasts is just human hours, editing something so it isn’t a waste of everyone’s time. To me, these are information-filled little pieces of art, and that takes time to make.
HZ: What’s Radiotopia for? What does it mean?
RM: What does it mean?
HZ: Yeah. What is this thing we’re all in together?
RM: It’s really about creating this perfect little utopia so we can create the best radio. We as Radiotopia fundraise together and support each other and encourage each other, and try to create a better place for people like us who want to do creative work in radio, but maybe get turned down a lot by the powers that be who actually decide what goes on the radio.
HZ: [mock sobbing]
HZ: Being part of this has been really life-changing for me.
RM: Yeah. I mean, when I get down about the work and get worried about it and think, “Why do I do all this stuff extra?”, you’re my main reason I keep going.
HZ: Really? Why?
RM: Because… I love Answer Me This; I love all your work; and to think you were in a place where that wasn’t valued to the highest extent makes me SO MAD, I just feel like I have to create the world where you win, because you deserve to win. That’s why Radiotopia is the name of a place, it’s a place where the good people win.
HZ: Well, that’s my ego stroked, goodbye!
HZ: I hope it’s working for you on that level.
RM: It is, it totally is. Radiotopia gives me a lot of pride. It gives me lots of headaches, and it takes a lot of time.
HZ: You had headaches anyway.
RM: I did. Now I get more of them.
HZ: Get over to radiotopia.fm if you want to fund otherwise unemployable audio entertainers like me. There are thirteen Radiotopia shows, collectively churning out 25-30 episodes a month, which is incredible value for the dollar or five dollars or ten dollars or however many dollars you’re willing to stump up each month. And there are bonus audio rewards and t-shirts and tote bags and challenge coins for you as well.
Every dollar counts, and every donor counts - if 15,000 of you donate, slack.com have pledged to give us an additional $75,000, and right now, we’re so close, over 13,000 of you have stepped up! Your single dollar could appreciate 75,000-fold! So go on. Radiotopia.fm.
Radiotopia from PRX was made possible by the Knight Foundation, Mailchimp, and you generous listeners. Today I will be dedicating the randomly selected word from the dictionary to three randomly selected Radiotopia donors: Kanchana, Valerie, and Tavin’s randomly selected word from the dictionary today is...
horst, noun, geology: a raised elongated block of the earth’s crust lying between two faults.
Try using it in an email today, Kanchana, Valerie and Tavin.
This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, with Dave Nadelberg and Neil Katcher from Mortified. Thanks to Eleanor McDowall and Martin Austwick for the help.
You can find me at allusionistshow on Facebook and Twitter, and at theallusionist.org, where I’ll be back next week with another Radiotopian. I need to go and study for the episode...
HZ: Sounds like a ride at a water park.
DN: Ooh, I wanna go on that.
NK: It sounds like a job that happens at a hospital. “Well, what do you do?” “I’m a mortiflusionist; I take your bodily fluids and bottle them.” For no apparent reason.
HZ: Everyone needs a hobby.
DN: The Mortiflusionist could also be a horror film, about -
NK: A delusional florist?
DN: Yeah! I’d want him to be played by Larry Drake of Dr Giggles fame. And I would also like pumpkin pie, but that is separate.