Science Diction From the people who make Science Friday, we bring you Science Diction, a bite-sized podcast about words—and the science stories behind them. Hosted by SciFri producer and self-proclaimed word nerd Johanna Mayer, each episode of Science Diction digs into the origin of a single word or phrase, and, with the help of historians, authors, etymologists, and scientists, reveals a surprising science connection. Did you know the origin of the word meme has more to do with evolutionary biology than lolcats? Or that the element cobalt takes its name from a very cheeky goblin from German folklore? Fun, nosy, and nerdy, Science Diction takes a look at what we're really saying when we use everyday words.Science Diction is a show for information packrats who are constantly sniffing out knowledge—you can listen while making your coffee or brushing your teeth. Episodes will drop once a week in the Science Friday podcast feed for the show's four-episode first season.Continuing Science Friday's decades-long track record of making science accessible, Science Diction reveals the science in places we didn't even know it existed. Because science is everywhere—even in our words. Locked inside our language are etymologies and histories that often stretch back centuries. Crafted with an ear for literature and seamlessly blending science, history, language, and culture, Science Diction examines the world around us and shines a light on the hidden science tucked away in our everyday words.
Science Diction

Science Diction

From WNYC Radio

From the people who make Science Friday, we bring you Science Diction, a bite-sized podcast about words—and the science stories behind them. Hosted by SciFri producer and self-proclaimed word nerd Johanna Mayer, each episode of Science Diction digs into the origin of a single word or phrase, and, with the help of historians, authors, etymologists, and scientists, reveals a surprising science connection. Did you know the origin of the word meme has more to do with evolutionary biology than lolcats? Or that the element cobalt takes its name from a very cheeky goblin from German folklore? Fun, nosy, and nerdy, Science Diction takes a look at what we're really saying when we use everyday words.Science Diction is a show for information packrats who are constantly sniffing out knowledge—you can listen while making your coffee or brushing your teeth. Episodes will drop once a week in the Science Friday podcast feed for the show's four-episode first season.Continuing Science Friday's decades-long track record of making science accessible, Science Diction reveals the science in places we didn't even know it existed. Because science is everywhere—even in our words. Locked inside our language are etymologies and histories that often stretch back centuries. Crafted with an ear for literature and seamlessly blending science, history, language, and culture, Science Diction examines the world around us and shines a light on the hidden science tucked away in our everyday words.

Most Recent Episodes

Alcohol: History's Favorite Mind-Bending Substance

Vervet monkeys steal it out of people's hands. Chimpanzees in Guinea are known to climb up palm trees and drink it. There's even a theory that loving it was an important adaptation for our pre-human ancestors, that the smell of fermentation helped them track down very ripe, calorie-rich fruit. Alcohol has been deeply ingrained in our lives from the beginning, possibly since before we were human. And while the drive to drink is older than civilization, many have worked hard to reign it in. In 1920s America, these desires clashed like never before. It's a story of a battle between chemists, and the unthinkable lengths the U.S. government went to to try to pry away our favorite mind-altering substance. Guest: Deborah Blum is a science writer and journalist. Footnotes & Further Reading: For more on the government poisoning program, check out The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum. For more on the "chemist's war," read this article by Deborah Blum. Credits: Science Diction is produced by Johanna Mayer and Elah Feder. Elah is our editor and senior producer. Our composer is Daniel Peterschmidt, who also mastered this episode. Special thanks to the Arabic scholar Stephen Guth, and to Kat Eschner. This episode was fact checked by Robin Palmer. Chris Wood contributed sound design. Nadja Oertelt is our chief content officer. This season of Science Diction was sponsored by Audible.

Robot: Making A Mechanical Mind

In 1920, a Czech writer was stumped. He'd written a play about a future where machines that looked like people do our bidding. They were the perfect workers: obedient, hard working, and never demanded a pay raise. But what was the writer to call these marvelous machines? There wasn't yet a word for this type of creation. He had initially chosen labori, from the Latin for labor, but something about the word wasn't quite right. It seemed...stiff, bookish. This play wasn't just about machines who labored. It was about machines we exploited, relentlessly. And eventually, the writer landed on a word that fit better: Robot. Robot comes from an old Czech word for drudgery and servitude. Though in his play - like so very many robo-dystopias to come - the writer showed that a mind we create to serve us, isn't necessarily a mind we can control. Footnotes & Further Reading: See more drawings and diagrams in The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices by Ismail al-Jazari. Check out some old footage of Unimate, the first worker robot. Credits: This episode was produced by Johanna Mayer, Julia Pistell, and Elah Feder. Elah is our editor and senior producer. We had sound design and mastering from Chris Wood. Our music was composed by Daniel Peterschmidt. Thank you to Craig Cravens, senior lecturer at Indiana University, for helping us with research about Karel Capek. We had fact checking help from Danya AbdelHameid. Nadja Oertelt is our chief content officer. This season of Science Diction is supported by Audible.

Lunacy: Mind Control From The Sky

On December 5th, 2012, a bill landed on President Barack Obama's desk, meant to do one thing: remove the word "lunatic" from the federal code. This is because in 2012, you could still find the word in laws about banking and controlling estates, among others. And not only was it offensive, it was antiquated—ancient, in fact. The word lunacy comes from luna—Latin for moon. This is because there was a time when we thought the power to change our moods and minds came from the sky. Guests: Miena Hall is a Family Medicine Resident at Adventist Hinsdale Hospital. Jo Marchant is a science journalist and author of The Human Cosmos. Footnotes & Further Reading: For a deep history on "madness," check out Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity, from the Bible to Freud, from the Madhouse to Modern Medicine by Andrew Scull. Meta-analyses and literature reviews haven't backed up a lunar effect on human behavior, but more recent studies have found intriguing patterns. Credits: Science Diction is hosted by Johanna Mayer. This episode was produced by Johanna Mayer, Chris Egusa, and Elah Feder. Elah is our editor and senior producer. Daniel Peterschmidt composed all the music and designed sound for this episode. Chris Wood mastered. We had fact checking by Danya AbdelHameid. Nadja Oertelt is our Chief Content Officer. Special thanks to Andrew Scull, Chiara Thumiger, who studies ancient medicine, and Janet Downie, Associate Professor of classics at UNC Chapel Hill. This season of Science Diction is supported by Audible.

Mesmerize: The 18th Century Medical Craze Behind the Word

In the late 18th century, a doctor showed up in Paris practicing some very peculiar medicine. He would escort patients into dimly lit rooms, wave his arms over their bodies, and touch them with a magnetic wand. Patients would react to these treatments violently: crying, sweating, convulsing or shrieking. But then they would emerge healed. According to the doctor anyway. Many believed he was a fraud, but despite his dubious methods, this doctor inadvertently gave us a new approach to healing—and a new word: mesmerize. Because the doctor's name was Franz Anton Mesmer. A depiction of Mesmer's "treatment" baquets. (Wikimedia Commons) Guests: Emily Ogden is an associate English professor at the University of Virginia. Footnotes & Further Reading: For a deep dive on mesmerism, check out Emily Ogden's book, Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism. Credits: Science Diction is hosted by Johanna Mayer. This episode was produced by Johanna Mayer, Katie Thornton, and Elah Feder. Elah is our editor and senior producer. We had story editing from Nathan Tobey. Daniel Peterschmidt is our composer, and we had sound design from Chris Wood, who also mixed and mastered the episode. Fact checking by Michelle Harris and Danya AbdelHameid. Nadja Oertelt is our Chief Content Officer. This season of Science Diction is supported by Audible.

Science Diction Returns For Season 3

Science Diction is back with a new season all about mind control—what happens when we decide to create new minds and they refuse to be controlled, why we've long believed the moon had the power to control our minds, and the extremes the government has gone to in order to pry us away from our favorite mind-altering substance. The first episode of our new season drops February 9th. Listen to a sneak peek above.

How Do You Name A Hurricane?

How did we wind up with a storm named Iota? Well, we ran out of hurricane names. Every year, the World Meteorological Organization puts out a list of 21 names for the season's hurricanes and tropical storms. But this year, the Atlantic hurricane season was so active that by September, we'd flown through the whole list of names and had to switch to the Greek alphabet. Thus, Hurricane Iota became the 30th named storm of the season. We've only had to dip into the Greek alphabet once before, in 2005. But the practice of naming hurricanes goes back to the 19th century, and it was a bit of a bumpy ride to land on the system we use today. In this episode: The story of a meteorologist in Australia, a novel, and a second-wave feminist from Florida—and how they brought us hurricane names. Guests: Christina M. Gonzalez is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin.Liz Skilton is a historian and the author of Tempest: Hurricane Naming and American Culture. Footnotes & Further Reading: For more hurricane history, check out A Furious Sky: The Five-Hundred-Year History of America's Hurricanes by Eric Jay Dolin. To learn more about Roxcy Bolton and the fight to change the naming system, read Liz Skilton's article "Gendering Natural Disaster: The Battle Over Female Hurricane Names." Credits: Science Diction is hosted and produced by Johanna Mayer. Our editor and producer is Elah Feder. We had story editing from Nathan Tobey, and fact checking by Michelle Harris. Our composer is Daniel Peterschmidt. Chris Wood did sound design and mastered the episode. Special thanks to the Florida State Library & Archives for allowing us use footage from Roxcy Bolton's oral history interview. Nadja Oertelt is our chief content officer.

Hydrox: How A Cookie Got A Name So Bad

The first Oreo rolled out of Chelsea Market in Manhattan in 1912, but despite the cookie's popularity today, Oreos weren't an immediate cookie smash hit. In fact, there was already another cookie on the block that looked remarkably similar to Oreos: two chocolate wafers embossed with laurel leaves, and white cream in the center. This cookie was widely loved, made with the highest quality ingredients, and saddled with a curious name: Hydrox. So how did a cookie get a name so bad? Producer Alexa Lim takes us all the way back to the early 1900s, and brings us a story of the rise - and the crumble - of a cookie named Hydrox. Guests: Carolyn Burns is the owner of The Insight Connection, and a former marketing director for Keebler. Stella Parks is a pastry chef and the author of Brave Tart: Iconic American Desserts. Ellia Kassoff is the CEO of Leaf Brands. Footnotes & Further Reading: For more Hydrox history, check out Brave Tart by Stella Parks. Can't get enough Hydrox? This is a fun website. Credits: This episode of Science Diction was produced by Alexa Lim, Elah Feder, and Johanna Mayer. Our editor is Elah Feder. Daniel Peterschmidt is our composer and contributed sound design. Fact checking by Danya AbdelHameid. Chris Wood mastered the episode. Our Chief Content Officer is Nadja Oertelt.

How Did The 'Cosmic Crisp' Apple Get Its Name?

This fall, there's a new apple all around town. After 20 years of development, the Cosmic Crisp has landed. In this episode, we're bringing you a special collaboration with another podcast called The Sporkful. They're a James Beard Award-winning show that uses food as a lens to talk about science, history, race, culture, and the ideal way to layer the components of a PB&J. This episode is all about the Cosmic Crisp, how scientists developed it, and how it got that dazzling name. Guests: Helen Zaltzman is the host of The Allusionist podcast. Dan Charles is a food and agriculture reporter at NPR. Kate Evans is a horticulturist and the leader of the pome fruit breeding program at Washington State University. Kathryn Grandy is Chief Marketing Officer for Proprietary Variety Management. Footnotes & Further Reading: For more episodes, subscribe to The Sporkful podcast. Credits: The Sporkful is produced by Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O'Hara, Jared O'Connell and Harry Huggins.

Restaurant: How It All Began

In the 1760s, a new kind of establishment started popping up in Paris, catering to the French and fancy. These places had tables, menus, and servers. They even called themselves "restaurants," and you might have too, were it not for one key difference: these restaurants were places you went not to eat. Well, not to chew anyway. Because they weren't in the business of feeding their genteel clientele, but of soothing their frayed nerves —with premium medicinal soups. Soups which were also called "restaurants"! In this episode: How restaurants evolved from a soup to a chic Parisian soup spa to the diverse, loved—and sorely missed—solid food eateries of today. Guests: Rebecca Spang is a professor of history at Indiana University. Stephani Robson is senior lecturer at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration. Footnotes & Further Reading: For more on early bouillon-sipping establishments and the rise of restaurants, take a peek at Rebecca Spang's book, The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture. Still can't get enough restaurant history? Check out Dining Out: A Global History of Restaurants. If you, like Stephani Robson, are passionate about optimal chair spacing, check out one of her studies on the subject. To see some of Stephani's work in action, listen to this collaborative episode from Planet Money and The Sporkful, on "The Great Data-Driven Restaurant Makeover." Credits: Science Diction is hosted and produced by Johanna Mayer. Elah Feder is our editor and producer. We had story editing from Nathan Tobey. Daniel Peterschmidt contributed sound design and wrote all our music, except the accordion piece which was by Dana Boulé and the final piece by Jazz at the Mladost Club. We had research help from Cosmo Bjorkenheim. Chris Wood mastered the episode, and we had fact checking by Michelle Harris. Special thanks to Gregg Rapp for talking to us about menu engineering. Nadja Oertelt is our Chief Content Officer.

Umami: A Century Of Disbelief

Salty, sweet, sour, bitter. Scientists once thought these were the only tastes, but in the early 20th century, a Japanese chemist dissected his favorite kombu broth and discovered one more: umami. In recent years, umami has become a foodie buzzword, but for nearly a century, the Western world was in full-blown umami denial—didn't believe it existed. And we might have stayed that way if it weren't for our most notorious and potent source of umami: MSG. A 1930s advertisement for Ajinomoto. (Courtesy of the Science History Institute.) Advertising brochure from the late 1940s until the early 1950s for Ac'cent, an MSG product manufactured by the International Minerals & Chemical Corporation. (Courtesy of the Science History Institute.) Kikunae Ikeda, who proposed the idea of umami as a fifth basic taste. (Wikimedia Commons) Guest: Nirupa Chaudhari is a professor of physiology & biophysics at the University of Miami. Kumiko Ninomiya is the director of the Umami Information Center. Footnotes & Further Reading: Special thanks to Sarah Tracy for some background on MSG in the United States. Read a translation of Kikunae Ikeda's original manuscript in Journal of the Chemical Society of Tokyo. "A Short History Of MSG" discusses Ajinomoto's marketing techniques, as well as reception of MSG in the United States and around the globe. If you're dying to see the Mr. Umami video mentioned in this story, watch it here. Hear more chefs gushing over umami at the Austin Food & Wine Festival. Credits: Science Diction is hosted and produced by Johanna Mayer. Elah Feder is our editor and producer. Nathan Tobey contributed story editing, and Kaitlyn Schwalje contributed writing and research. Thanks also to Lauren J. Young and Attabey Rodríguez Benítez for research help. Our composer is Daniel Peterschmidt, and they also did sound design. Chris Wood mastered this episode. We had fact checking from Michelle Harris. Nadja Oertelt is our Chief Content Officer.

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