Science Friday Presents: Science Diction

Science Diction is a bite-sized podcast about words—and the science stories behind them.

design of typewriter with text 'science diction'Science Diction is a bite-sized podcast about words—and the science stories behind them. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and sign up for our newsletter.


From the people who make Science Friday, we bring you Science Diction, a bite-sized podcast about words—and the hidden science tucked inside 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.

Science Diction explores the strange journey that our words have taken: The word meme originally had more to do with evolutionary biology than the internet, and the element cobalt takes its name from a very cheeky goblin from German folklore. And who knew that the word cell was inspired not by microscopic life, but by the cloistered chambers of a monastery?

Fun, nosy, and nerdy, Science Diction takes a look at what we’re really saying when we use everyday words. Can’t wait to dive in? Sign up for our newsletter. Plus, Science Diction existed first as a written series, and you can take a peek at some previous articles below.


Calling all word nerds! Sign up for an email about words and language, and updates about the Science Diction podcast.


Episode 4: Cobalt

‘Cobalt’ takes its name from a pesky goblin—and mischief is baked into its name.

bright blue rock with devil horns against a red papery background
Illustration by Rose Wong

Episode 3: Dinosaur

The origin of the word ‘dinosaur,’ and the story of its self-sabotaging inventor.

Episode 2: Vaccine

The origin of the word ‘vaccine’ stretches back to a disease, a test subject, and… a cow.

bottle filled with cow colored liquid and syringe on red background
Illustration by Rose Wong

Episode 1: Meme

The word ‘meme’ has more to do with evolutionary biology than the internet.

The Origin Of The Word ‘Seaborgium’

For 20 years, it was known simply as “element 106.”

Glenn Seaborg pointing to seaborgium on the periodic table. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Origin Of The Word ‘Mercury’

From ancient alchemists to Lewis and Clark, mercury has a storied history.

Liquid mercury. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Origin Of The Word ‘Helium’

Astronomers thought the element could only be found in the sun.

A map of the solar eclipse of August 18, 1868. Credit: Internet Archive, from “Archives des missions scientifiques et littéraires.”

The Origin Of The Word ‘Cobalt’

It was deemed “the goblin of the mines”—and it revolutionized the world of art.

textured painting with multiple shades of blue depicting river scene under stars with two figures walking
Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night Over The Rhône,” which uses a combination of ultramarine, Prussian blue, and cobalt. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Origin Of The Word ‘Emoji’

The word ’emoji’ has nothing to do with emotion.

three thinking face emoji in a row against black background

The Origin Of The Word ‘Humor’

From pseudoscience to Shakespeare, it’s no laughing matter.

The four temperaments. From left to right: choleric, sanguine, melancholic, and phlegmatic. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Origin Of The Word ‘Vaccine’

This world-changing tool of immunization got its name from a cow virus.

“Edward Jenner advising a farmer to vaccinate his family”. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Origin Of The ‘Five-Second Rule’

It has to do with Genghis Khan and Julia Child.

Julia Child dropping a potato pancake in an episode of “The French Chef.” Credit: The Cooking Channel

The Origin Of The Word ‘Chocolate’

Every day, people around the word are speaking a tiny bit of the native language Nahuat.

yellowed woodcut with people dancing and pouring drinks out of vessels
A 1519 woodcut depicting Native Americans dancing and drinking cacao (lower right corner). Image courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University

The Origin Of The Word ‘Thermometer’

The term first appeared in an early “puzzle book” full of scientific brainteasers.

wide shot of yellowed title page of book with surrounding illustrations
Photo by Daniel Peterschmidt, courtesy of the NYPL Rare Book Division.

The Origin Of The Name ‘Spanish Flu’

It’s a misnomer that endured for a century.

black and white photo of overflowing hospital ward filled with cots and patients
An overflowing emergency hospital in Camp Funston, a U.S. Army facility in Kansas. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Origin Of The Word ‘Crater’

It has more to do with wine than lava.

An 1869 depiction of Plato’s symposium, with a krater in the foreground to the right. Credit: Anselm Feuerbach via Wikimedia Commons

The Origin Of The Word ‘Alcohol’

“The cause of (and solution to) all life’s problems” is derived from Arabic. But the word ‘alcohol’ originally referred to a method of manufacturing makeup, among other things.

black and white image of woman in robes standing next to distillation apparatus
An engraving of Maria the Jewess. Credit: Wellcome Collection/Wikimedia Commons

The Origin Of The Word ‘Meme’

What does LOLcats have to do with evolutionary biology?

The Origin Of The Word ‘Tuberculosis’

Why did we stop calling the disease ‘consumption’?

close up shot of microscopic tb bacteria
Scanning electron micrograph of several Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria, magnified 21228x. Credit: CDC/ Dr. Ray Butler; Janice Carr

The Origin Of The Word ‘Dinosaur’

Make no bones about the origin of this dinosaur story.

The ‘megalosaurus’ jaw that Buckland studied. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Origin Of The Word ‘Quarantine’

‘Trentino’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

A view of a quarantine area in Malta. Credit: Wellcome Collection

The Origin Of The Word ‘Cocaine’

It’s a tale of a leaf, a graduate student, and alkaloid science.

An advertisement for cocaine-infused toothache drops, marketed towards children. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Origin Of The Word ‘Sun’

You’ve heard of “heliocentric.” So why don’t we call it the “helio?”

Credit: Gryffindor/Wikipedia/{PD}

The Origin Of The Word ‘Umami’

There’s science behind deliciousness.

image of a woman on the cover of a cookbook stirring pot
Credit: Science History Institute

The Origin Of The Word ‘Cell’

It all started with a piece of cork…

Hooke’s illustration of a magnified piece of cork. Credit: Daniel Peterschmidt

The Origin Of The Word ‘Robot’

‘Robot’ was the brainchild of the Czech playwright Karel Čapek, who introduced it in a 1920 play.

old black and white photo in a living room with three stiff robot people with two regular humans
A scene from Rossum’s Universal Robots, showing three robots, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Origin Of The Word ‘Quark’

It’s a tale of particle physics, Aristotle, and James Joyce.

Physicist John Dalton’s composition & size of atoms. Credit: via the Wellcome Collection

The Origin Of The Word ‘Zero’

There’s a lot to say about nothing.

Credit: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford; Science Museum.

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Meet the Writer

About Johanna Mayer

Johanna Mayer is the host of Science Diction from Science Friday. When she’s not working, she’s probably baking a fruit pie. Cherry’s her specialty, but she whips up a mean rhubarb streusel as well.

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