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

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.

Guest Episode: Communal Eating With 'Gastropod'

This week, we're sharing an episode from an excellent food podcast, Gastropod. This show is right up our alley—co-hosts Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley serve up episodes that "look at food through the lens of science and history." What's not to love? This episode looks at something we're all missing a lot these days: communal eating. We love eating dinner together with friends and extended family, and we miss it! But why does sharing a meal mean so much—and can we ever recreate that on Zoom? As we wait for the dinner parties, cookouts, and potlucks of our post-pandemic future, join us as we explore the science and history of communal dining. Scientist Ayelet Fishbach shares how and why eating together makes us better able to work together, and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar and archaeologist Brian Hayden demonstrate how it actually made us human—and led to everything from the common cow to the pyramids. Plus, we join food writers Nichola Fletcher and Samin Nosrat for the largest in-person banquet of all time, with Parisian waiters on bicycles, as well as the world's biggest online lasagna party. Guests: Samin Nosrat is a chef, teacher and author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. Ayelet Fishbach is professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago. Robin Dunbar is a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford. Brian Hayden is an archaeologist and emeritus professor at Simon Fraser University. Nichola Fletcher is a food writer in Scotland and author of the book Charlemagne's Tablecloth: A Piquant History of Feasting. Alice Julier is a sociologist who writes about inequality, food, and everyday life. Footnotes & Further Reading: Listen to more Gastropod here. Credits: This episode of Gastropod was produced by Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley.

Rocky Road: Why It Sounds So Dang Delicious

Rocky Road is just a good name for an ice cream flavor. So good, in fact, that two ice cream institutions have dueling claims to Rocky Road's invention. It's a story of alleged confessions and a whole lot of ice cream-fueled drama. If it were just the flavor that made Rocky Road so special, every company could have just made their own concoction of nuts, chocolate, and marshmallows, named it "Muddy Street" or "Pebble Lane," and called it a day. But there's a linguistic reason why Rocky Road just sounds so dang delicious—and it's studied by linguists and marketers alike. Fenton's Creamery in Oakland, California, one of the institutions that lays claim to inventing Rocky Road. (Wikimedia Commons) In this episode, we mention the Bouba Kiki Effect. Imagine two shapes: One is a pointy, jagged polygon, the other an ameboid-like splotch. Which shape would you name "Bouba," and which would you name "Kiki?" In study after study, 90% of people agree—the pointy shape is "Kiki" and the rounded shape is "Bouba." This so-called "Bouba-Kiki Effect" holds in many languages, and has even been demonstrated with toddlers. But why the near-universal agreement? Cognitive psychologists like Kelly McCormick have several theories. Watch this Science Friday video to learn more. Guest: Alissa Greenberg is a freelance journalist. Dan Jurafsky is a professor of linguistics at Stanford, and the author of The Language of Food. Will Leben is professor emeritus of linguistics at Stanford, and is the former director of linguistics at Lexicon Branding. Footnotes And Further Reading: Read Alissa Greenberg's full (highly entertaining) story of the history of Rocky Road ice cream. The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky is a word nerd's dream, and contains more about his experiment on cracker and ice cream brand names. Credits: Science Diction is hosted and produced by Johanna Mayer. Our editor and producer is Elah Feder. We had additional story editing from Nathan Tobey. Fact checking by Michelle Harris, with help from Danya AbdelHameid. Daniel Peterschmidt is our composer. Sound design and mastering by Chris Wood. Our Chief Content Officer is Nadja Oertelt.

Ketchup: A Fishy History

At the turn of the 20th century, 12 young men sat in the basement of the Department of Agriculture, eating meals with a side of borax, salicylic acid, or formaldehyde. They were called the Poison Squad, and they were part of a government experiment to figure out whether popular food additives were safe. (Spoiler: Many weren't.) Food manufacturers weren't pleased with the findings, but one prominent ketchup maker paid attention. Influenced by these experiments, he transformed ketchup into the all-American condiment that we know and love today. Except ketchup—both the sauce and the word—didn't come from the United States. The story of America's favorite condiment begins in East Asia. Harvey Wiley (back row, third from left) and the members of The Poison Squad. (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) Members of the Poison Squad dining in the basement of the Department of Agriculture. Harvey Wiley occasionally ate with them, to offer encouragement and support. (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) The members of the Poison Squad came up with their own inspirational slogan, which hung on a sign outside the dining room. (U.S. Food and Drug Administration ) Guest Alan Lee is a freelance linguist and native Hokkien speaker. Footnotes And Further Reading The Poison Squad by Deborah Blum tells the very entertaining history of Harvey Wiley, the early days of food regulation in the United States, and, of course, the Poison Squad. The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky is a word nerd's dream, and contains more on ketchup's early history. Special thanks to Dan Jurafsky for providing background information on the early history of ketchup for this episode. Can't get enough ketchup history? Check out Pure Ketchup: A History of America's National Condiment With Recipes by Andrew F. Smith. Learn more about ketchup's early origins in Dan Jurafsky's Slate article on "The Cosmopolitan Condiment." Credits Science Diction is hosted and produced by Johanna Mayer. Our editor and producer is Elah Feder. We had additional story editing from Nathan Tobey. Our Chief Content Office is Nadja Oertelt. Fact checking by Michelle Harris, with help from Danya AbdelHameid. Daniel Peterschmidt is our composer, and they wrote our version of the "Song of the Poison Squad." We had research help from Cosmo Bjorkenheim and Attabey Rodríguez Benítez. Sound design and mastering by Chris Wood.

Science Diction Digs Into Food

Over the next few weeks, we'll investigate the science, language, and history of food.

Spanish Flu

In the fall of 1918, Philadelphia newspapers announced that a new virus had arrived in the city, the so-called "Spanish flu." But the facts and scope were muddy and uncertain, and the city decided to push forward with a highly-anticipated parade. About 200,000 people showed up, and packed onto sidewalks. Halfway across the country, St. Louis, Missouri looked very different that fall. Businesses shuttered, movie theatres went dark, and students stayed home. Just like today, cities across the U.S. responded to the 1918 influenza pandemic differently—with very different results. In this episode, we go back to 1918 and a pandemic which wasn't Spanish at all. Footnotes And Further Reading: Get into the nitty gritty of viral evolution with "1918 Influenza: the Mother of All Pandemics" which reviews the 1918 pandemic and all outbreaks it later spawned. The CDC's Pandemic Influenza Storybook paints a vivid picture of life during the pandemic. We first learned about Philadelphia's Liberty Loan Parade from the Washington Post's reporting. For this story, we read many old articles from newspapers across the country, all archived on newspapers.com (available with a subscription). Credits: Science Diction is hosted and produced by Johanna Mayer. Our producer and editor is Elah Feder. We had additional story editing from Nathan Tobey, and fact checking help from Michelle Harris. Our composer is Daniel Peterschmidt. We also included audio from "The Liberty Loan March," performed by the United States Marine Band, which is in the public domain. Special thanks to Alan Kraut, a professor of history at American University who's written extensively on the topic of immigration, disease, and prejudice. And to Chris Naffziger, who spoke to us about St. Louis's response to the 1918 pandemic. You can read more of his reporting for St. Louis Magazine.

Quarantine

Quarantine has been on many of our minds lately. The phrases "shelter in place" and "self-quarantine" have filled up our news, social media, and conversations since the first inklings of the coronavirus pandemic. But this is far from the first time cities and countries have used the practice of physical separation to battle the spread of disease. You might think of Mary Mallon, who many know as "Typhoid Mary." In the early 1900s, she spent nearly 30 years in a cottage on a small island in New York City's East River, all to prevent her from infecting others. But we've been using quarantine for millennia—well before we even understood germs existed and that they can be transmitted from person-to-person. And the origin of the word stretches all the way back to the mid-14th century, when Europe was swept by one of the biggest losses of human life in history: the Black Death. Want to stay up to speed with Science Diction? Sign up for our newsletter. Guest: Alexander More is a historian at Harvard University and Long Island University in Brooklyn, New York. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram. Footnotes And Further Reading: Special thanks to Alexander More, Judith Walzer Leavitt, and Karl Appuhn. If you want to learn more about Mary Mallon, we recommend Judith's book, Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public's Health. Credits: Science Diction is hosted and produced by Johanna Mayer. Our producer and editor is Elah Feder. We had additional story editing from Nathan Tobey, and fact checking help from Michelle Harris. Our composer is Daniel Peterschmidt. Charles Bergquist played the part of George Soper.

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