Welcome To Science Diction

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 created Science Diction.

Each week, we’ll send you an email 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. 

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

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.

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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