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 WQXR 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

Juggernaut: Indian Temple Or Unstoppable Force?

In 2014, a grad student in Kolkata named Ujaan Ghosh came across an old book by a Scottish missionary. And as Ghosh paged through the book, he noticed the missionary kept using a word over and over: Juggernaut. But the missionary wasn't using it the way we do today—to mean an unstoppable, overwhelming force. He was using it to talk about a place: a temple in Puri, India. So Ghosh dug further, and as he grasped the real story of where the English word, juggernaut, had come from, he realized there was just no way he could keep using it. A transcript of this episode is being processed and will be available within a week. Guests: Chris Egusa is an audio producer and 2020 KALW Audio Academy fellow. Dylan Thuras is co-founder of Atlas Obscura, and host of the Atlas Obscura podcast. Ujaan Ghosh is a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Footnotes & Further Reading: Read Ujaan Ghosh's article on the origins of the word "juggernaut." Learn more about Jagannath Temple in Atlas Obscura. Listen to more episodes of the Atlas Obscura podcast. Credits: This episode was a collaboration between Science Diction and Atlas Obscura. It was produced by Johanna Mayer and Chris Egusa, and edited by Elah Feder and John DeLore. Daniel Peterschmidt is our composer, and Danya AbdelHameid fact checked the episode. It was mixed by Luz Fleming.

Jargon: We Love To Hate It

Head on over to plainlanguage.gov, and you'll find a helpful table, dedicated to simplifying and demystifying military jargon. On one side of the table, there's the jargon term, and on the other, its plain language equivalent. "Arbitrarily deprive of life"? Actually just means "kill people." "Render nonviable"? Also means "kill people." "Terminate with extreme prejudice"? "Kill people." This table is just one of many resources on plainlanguage.gov—from checklists to plain language training to thesauruses. The website was created by an unfunded government group of plain language activists who make it their mission to translate government communications into regular old, plain language. But jargon isn't just a government problem. It pops up in nearly every field, and it seems like it annoys most of us. So why do we use it? And is there anything actually good about it? This episode was inspired by a question from a listener, Jafar, who asked about the word "recrudescence" and why we tend to use fancy words when simple ones would work just fine. If you have a question about a word or phrase, leave us a voicemail! The number is 929-499-WORD, or 929-499-9673. Or, you can always send an email to podcasts@sciencefriday.com. Guests: Joe Kimble is a plain language advocate and professor emeritus at WMU-Cooley Law School. David Lipscomb is Director of the Writing Center at Georgetown University, and Vice Chair of the Center for Plain Language. Alejandro Martínez García is a researcher at the National Research Council in Italy. Footnotes & Further Reading: For a challenge, try to explain science using only 1,000 of the most common words. For all your plain language writing needs, take a look at plainlanguage.gov. Learn more about the history of the plain language movement in the United States. Read a study on how our brains react to concrete vs. abstract language. Read more about how jargon affects citations in scientific papers. Credits: This episode was produced by Johanna Mayer and Senior Producer and Editor Elah Feder. Daniel Peterschmidt is our composer. Nadja Oertelt is our Chief Content Officer. Special thanks to Jana Goldman, Bill Lutz, and especially Karen Schriver for background information on the plain language movement.

Algebra: From Broken Bones To Twitter Feuds

When high schooler Gracie Cunningham posted a TikTok asking where algebra came from, she probably didn't expect to become a viral sensation. There were the usual Twitter trolls, but some unexpected voices also began piping up, causing a flurry in the math world.Thank you to Chad, the listener who suggested that we do an episode on algebra. If you have a suggestion for a word or episode, leave us a voicemail. The number is 929-499-WORD, or 929-499-9673. Or, you can always send an email to podcasts@sciencefriday.com. Guests: Steven Strogatz is a Professor of applied mathematics at Cornell, and Visiting Professor at National Museum of Mathematics.Eugenia Cheng is a mathematician and Scientist in Residence at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the author of x + y: A Mathematician's Manifesto for Rethinking Gender. Footnotes & Further Reading: Read Eugenia Cheng's full response to Gracie. Take a peek at al-Khwarizmi's The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing. Credits: This episode was produced by Johanna Mayer and Lauren Young. Our Editor and Senior Producer is Elah Feder. Daniel Peterschmidt is our Composer. Danya AbdelHameid contributed fact checking. Our Chief Content Officier is Nadja Oertelt.

Hurricane

CORRECTION: In this episode, we say that there were only two names left on the 2021 list of Atlantic hurricane names until we resume use of the Greek alphabet letters. In March 2021, the World Meteorological Association decided to end the use of the Greek alphabet, and provided a list of supplementary names instead. This episode is a re-broadcast. It originally aired in November 2020. Every year, the World Meteorological Organization puts out a list of 21 names for the season's hurricanes and tropical storms. But in 2020, 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 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 Senior 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.

Knock On Wood And Tsunami

Journalists Kevin McLean and Shalina Chatlani join us for a round of Diction Dash, where Johanna tries - and usually fails - to guess the true meaning or origin of a word. If you're curious about a word, get in touch! Give us a call, leave a message, and we might play it on the show. The number is 929-499-WORD, or 929-499-9673. Or, you can always send an email to podcasts@sciencefriday.com. Guests: Kevin McLean is a producer at the Science Communication Lab.Shalina Chatlani is the health care reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom. Footnotes & Further Reading: Read the full study on the link between a desire for control, and reliance on superstitions under stress. Credits: This episode was produced by Daniel Peterschmidt, Johanna Mayer, and Senior Producer Elah Feder. Daniel Peterschmidt is our composer and mastered this episode. We had fact checking help from Robin Palmer. Nadja Oertelt is our Chief Content Officer.

The Rise Of The Myers-Briggs, Chapter 3: What Is It Good For?

When Isabel Briggs Myers imagined that her homegrown personality test would change the world, she couldn't have pictured this. Today, millions take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator each year. Countless organizations use it, from General Motors to the CIA. But there's one field that mostly rolls its eyes at the test: psychology. In our final chapter, Isabel rescues her indicator from the verge of extinction, but has to make some compromises. And we explore what the Myers Briggs does (and doesn't) measure, and why people love it despite psychologists' complaints. Listen to Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 of this series. Guests: Merve Emre is a writer and English professor at the University of Oxford. Annie Murphy Paul is a science journalist and author. Dan McAdams is a professor of psychology at Northwestern University. Quinisha Jackson-Wright is a writer and the author of Working Twice as Hard. Jeffrey Hayes is the President and CEO of the Myers-Briggs Company. Rich Thompson is Senior Director of Global Research at The Myers-Briggs Company. Peter Geyer is a Myers-Briggs practitioner in Melbourne Australia. Footnotes & Further Reading: Check out Merve Emre's book, ​​The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing. Read Annie Murphy Paul's book, The Cult of Personality Testing. Credits: This episode of Science Diction was produced by Johanna Mayer, Chris Egusa, and Senior Producer Elah Feder. Daniel Peterschmidt is our composer, and they mastered the episode. We had fact checking help from Sona Avakian. Special thanks to Peter Geyer for providing archival audio. Nadja Oertelt is our Chief Content Officer.

The Rise Of The Myers-Briggs, Chapter 2: Isabel

At first, it seemed like Isabel Briggs Myers would have nothing to do with personality typology. That was her mother Katharine's passion project, not hers. But when Isabel enters a tumultuous marriage, she discovers that her mother's gospel of type might just be the thing to save it. In Chapter 2, Isabel picks up her mother's work, and decides to transform it into a marketable product—but first, she has to convince a group of skeptical PhDs that it actually works. Along the way, one particularly dogged researcher notices some issues with her indicator, threatening to undo everything she'd worked for. If you're new to the series, listen to Chapter 1. Guest: Merve Emre is a writer and English professor at the University of Oxford. Footnotes & Further Reading: Read Merve Emre's book, ​​The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing. Credits: This episode was produced by Johanna Mayer, Chris Egusa, and Senior Producer Elah Feder. Our music was composed by Daniel Peterschmidt, who also mastered this episode and helped with archival research. We had fact checking help from Cosmo Bjorkenheim. Peter Geyer provided us with archival audio. Nadja Oertelt is our Chief Content Officer.

The Rise Of The Myers-Briggs, Chapter 1: Katharine

If you're one of the 2 million people who take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator every year, perhaps you thought Myers and Briggs are the two psychologists who designed the test. In reality, a mother-daughter team created the test essentially at their kitchen table. In this episode, we look at the unlikely origins of the Myers-Briggs, going all the way back to the late 1800s when Katharine Cook Briggs turned her living room into a "cosmic laboratory of baby training" and set out to raise the perfect child. In this three-part series, we uncover the strange history of the most popular personality test in the world, and how two women revolutionized personality testing—for better or for worse. Guest: Merve Emre is a writer and English professor at the University of Oxford. Footnotes & Further Reading: Read Merve Emre's book, ​​The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing. Credits: This episode was produced by Johanna Mayer, Chris Egusa, and Elah Feder. Our music was composed by Daniel Peterschmidt, who also mastered the episode. Fact checking by Danya AbdelHameid. Archival audio was provided courtesy of Peter Geyer. Nadja Oertelt is our Chief Content Officer.

Honeymoon: A Bittersweet Beginning

Honeymoon: It just seems like a word that would have a lovely story behind it, doesn't it? When a listener named Eric emailed us from Centerville, Ohio asking about the word, that's what we were hoping to find. Instead, we found a more bittersweet origin stretching all the way back to an early modern poem. Plus: We take a look at what's going on in our brains during the honeymoon period—and whether it's all downhill from there. If you want us to cover a word on the show, get in touch! Give us a call, leave a message, and we might play it on the show. The number is 929-499-WORD, or 929-499-9673. Or, you can always send an email to podcasts@sciencefriday.com. Guest: Christine Proulx is an Associate Professor in Human Development and Family Science at the University of Missouri. Footnotes & Further Reading: Read the full John Heywood poem where the word "honeymoon" appears for the first time. Learn more about what's happening in your brain during the honeymoon phase. Read the full study on how researchers used an fMRI to find activity in the ventral tegmental area of the brains of people who recently fell in love. Credits: Science Diction is produced by Johanna Mayer and Senior Producer Elah Feder. Daniel Peterschmidt is our composer, and they mastered the episode. Nadja Oertelt is our Chief Content Officer. Special thanks this week to Michael Lorber and Helen Fisher. See you soon.

It'll Never Fly: When Gene Names Are TOO Fun

In 1910, a fruit fly geneticist named Thomas Hunt Morgan noticed something strange in one of his specimens. Out of his many, many fruit flies—all with brilliant red eyes—a single fly had white eyes. This fruit fly turned out to be a very big deal. From those white eyes, Morgan eventually figured out that genes can be sex-linked, confirmed that genes exist on chromosomes, and won the Nobel prize. But he also cemented his legacy another way, with what he chose to name that gene: "white". It might sound uninspired, but it kicked off a tradition that decades later gave us names like spatzle, hamlet, and ken and barbie. Here and there, a name went too far, but overall, fanciful names brought joy to researchers and worked well until genes like these were discovered in humans, and everything went awry. Johanna and Senior Producer Elah Feder team up with Helen Zaltzman of The Allusionist to talk about fruit flies, genes, and whether it's ok to name a gene after a German noodle. Plus, after much demand, we bring you... the origin of "defenestration"! Guests: Helen Zaltzman is the host of The Allusionist. Credits: Science Diction is produced by Johanna Mayer and Senior Producer Elah Feder. Our composer is Daniel Peterschmidt. Nadja Oertelt is our Chief Content Officer.