Introducing Our New Podcast: Science Diction

4:44 minutes

four illustrations tiled on a red background. from left to right, an illustration of a blue rock with devil horns and a tail, a t rex skull with a lizard on top, a syringe with a small medical vial that is cow printed, and replicating square featuring a cartoon cat face
Illustrations by Rose Wong

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.

There are words we use every day for common things or ideas—meme, vaccine, dinosaur—but where did those words come from? Sometimes, there’s a scientific backstory.

Take the word quarantine, now in the news due to widespread infection control measures. Did you know that it comes from quarantino, a 40-day isolation period for arriving ships—which originally was a trentino, a 30-day period, established in what is now Croatia in the plague-stricken 1340’s?

Science Friday’s word nerd Johanna Mayer joins Ira to talk about the origins of the word quarantine, and how she flips through science history and culture to tell us these stories in her new podcast Science Diction. 

The first season of Science Diction is now available! Listen and subscribe wherever you enjoy your podcasts.

Segment Guests

Johanna Mayer

Johanna Mayer is a podcast producer and hosted 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.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: The word “quarantine” has been in the news lately, especially when linked to the word “self.” Wonder where the word originated? We did. There are words we use every day for common things or ideas, like meme, vaccine, dinosaur. Sometimes they have a scientific backstory. And when they do, Science Friday’s resident word nerd, Johanna Mayer, is right on the case with her new wordy podcast, Science Diction. And she’s here to enlighten us about the origins of the word “quarantine.”

Welcome back.


IRA FLATOW: OK. Get us into this.

JOHANNA MAYER: All right. So we’ve been hearing the word “quarantine” a lot lately. And quarantine practices go back for ages. But it wasn’t until the mid-14th century in Europe, during the time of the bubonic plague, that we actually had a word for this practice.

An official quarantine policy began in this one particular port city, called Ragusa. And Ragusa is now in present-day Croatia, but at the time, it was controlled by Italians. And so in the thick of the Black– in the thick of the bubonic plague, officials in Ragusa came up with this law, called trentino. And trentino law said that ships coming in from plague-infested area would– needed to be isolated in port for a period of 30 days. And for some reason, they bumped that up to 40 days. And the word “quarantine” comes from the Italian quaranta, which means 40.

IRA FLATOW: OK. I like that. You like looking back into the story of words like this. Before we tell everybody about your new podcast, let me tell everybody, this is Science Friday, from WNYC studio.

Your new podcast, Science Diction. Tell us about it. What are some of the other words you’re looking at?

JOHANNA MAYER: Yes. So Science Diction is a short, new podcast from Science Friday. And each episode looks into a particular word or phrase, like quarantine, and kind of digs into the scientific origin story behind it. It’s short, and it’s super nerdy. And you’re guaranteed to have the geekiest story to share at the next dinner party you go to.

IRA FLATOW: Well, you’ve looked at a lot of words. You’ve chosen these ones. Which one is your favorite so far?

JOHANNA MAYER: So our first episode is on the word “meme,” which is a word that we associate with the internet and lolcats and distracted boyfriends and things like that. But it turns out that the word “meme” had nothing to do with the internet originally. It was coined by a rather famous evolutionary biologist that I’m sure you’ve heard of. His name was Richard Dawkins.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, yeah.

JOHANNA MAYER: Yeah. So in the ’70s, Dawkins wrote a book. It was called The Selfish Gene. And in the book, he talks about how we know how genes spread and replicate and evolve. And that’s the basis of evolution.

But he also talks about how the principles of evolution can be applied to ideas and culture too. So– but there wasn’t a word for that. So Dawkins coined the word “meme” as the equivalent of a gene for culture and ideas.

So he took the Greek word “mimema,” which means imitation, and he smashed it together with the English word “gene.” So mimema plus gene equals meme. And I spoke with– oh, but one thing to remember is that when Dawkins came up with this word, he was not talking about lolcats and distracted boyfriends, obviously.

The Dawkins idea of a meme is just an idea that spreads. So I spoke with an internet linguist, named Gretchen McCulloch, for this episode. And here’s how she kind of parses out the difference.

GRETCHEN MCCULLOCH: A Dawkins meme could be the idea that the earth revolves around the sun. And that’s not an internet meme, right?


GRETCHEN MCCULLOCH: The idea that the earth revolves around the sun is a very boring internet meme. It’s not very good as an internet meme.


Like, it doesn’t come with a fun video. It doesn’t come with a dance. It doesn’t come with an image.

JOHANNA MAYER: There are no cats.

GRETCHEN MCCULLOCH: There are no cats.

IRA FLATOW: That’s great. That’s great.

JOHANNA MAYER: So the word, itself, has really evolved over the years.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Let me give you something I’ve been thinking about. And I wanted– because you’re a word nerd– we keep talking about the coronavirus. Where does corona come from? Why is it called a coronavirus?

JOHANNA MAYER: It’s because of the way that the virus looks. So corona means crown. And Google a picture of the coronavirus, and you’ll see these little spikes all around it. And it honestly looks kind of like the Statue of Liberty.


JOHANNA MAYER: There you go.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Explosion in my head.

JOHANNA MAYER: Who would’ve thunk–

IRA FLATOW: Who would’ve thunk that. OK. Oh, I love this stuff. How can we get more?

JOHANNA MAYER: So you can subscribe to Science Diction wherever you get your podcasts.

IRA FLATOW: And we’ll be making as many as we can, right?

JOHANNA MAYER: We sure will.

IRA FLATOW: Picking out more stuff. Thank you.

JOHANNA MAYER: A lot of words out there. Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Johanna Mayer is host of Science Friday’s new podcast, Science Diction. And as she says, check it out, and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

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Meet the Producers and Host

About Charles Bergquist

As Science Friday’s director and senior producer, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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