Welcome To Science Diction

This summer, we’re examining the secret scientific origin of words.

This is a part of Science Diction, a series digging into the scientific origin stories behind our words and language. Find all our stories and previous issues here.


Science doesn’t exist in a silo. Scientists use words and language just like us. Encoded in the language they use are etymologies, histories, and stories that often stretch back centuries—some even bleeding into the words we use in our everyday life. It’s a fascinating trail we wanted to follow. That’s why we’re launching a limited run newsletter series called Science Diction.

This summer, we’ll send you a weekly email, each featuring a single word and unearthing the scientific origin story behind it. From quarks to umami to the sun, we’ll take a look at what we’re really saying when we use these words.

So, for all the word nerds and etymology enthusiasts, the logophiles and language lovers, the history buffs and story seekers, this one’s for you. Sign up here, and read previous issues below. 


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.

Calling all word nerds! Sign up for Science Diction, a weekly email about words, science, and language.

Meet the Writer

About Johanna Mayer

Johanna Mayer is a digital producer at Science Friday. When she’s not obsessively checking SciFri’s digital pages, 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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