The New ‘Science Diction’ Podcast Brings You: Vaccine
Science has given us more than data. It’s also brought us words for everyday things or ideas—meme, cobalt, dinosaur. And there’s often a good story about how those words got into our common use.
Take the word “vaccine,” the distant, but hoped-for solution to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. It turns out the word originates from vaccinae, relating to cows, because the smallpox vaccine was derived from cowpox, a related virus.
Science Friday word nerd Johanna Mayer joins John Dankosky to talk about the origins of the word “vaccine,” and how she sleuths the fascinating histories that she tells in her new podcast Science Diction.
Johanna Mayer is a podcast producer and hosts 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.
JOHN DANKOSKY: OK, think of the word “cobalt.” It’s a striking shade of blue, an element on the periodic table, and at one point, a tricky goblin from German folklore.
Over the centuries science has given birth to words that are now part of our everyday life– dinosaur, meme, vaccine. Yeah, we’ll say more about vaccine in just a minute. I know that’s on your mind. And when it comes to tracing back the story of where those words come from, who better than Sci Fri’s resident word nerd, Johanna Mayer?
She’s host of the new Science Diction podcast. She’s here to tell us the sordid tales of words like cobalt. Welcome back, Johanna.
JOHANNA MAYER: Hey, John, how are you?
JOHN DANKOSKY: I’m doing quite well. So, cobalt. There’s a good story behind this word?
JOHANNA MAYER: There is. And it starts in the 1500s with a bunch of miners in Germany and this one particularly pesky ore that was giving them a ton of trouble.
JOHN DANKOSKY: OK.
JOHANNA MAYER: So the thing that was going on is that, first of all this ore, when they dug it up, it looked kind of like silver. It had this metallic sheen on it so they thought that they had great luck there. But when they melted it down, it was not silver at all. It turned out to be just a lumpy rock of whatever.
So, the second thing that was happening was that something in the ore was making these miners sick, and they just could not figure out what was going on. So the miners came up with their own explanation, which was as good as any other, which was it had to be a goblin in the ore that was making them sick. Naturally, of course.
But the thing was, it wasn’t just any goblin. The miners said that it was a particular kind of goblin from German folklore. And this goblin was called a kobold. That’s with a K and with a D. And the kobold goblin had a reputation for being particularly troublesome and mischievous. So they were saying that it was this kobold goblin that was stealing the silver out of the ore and making them sick.
And it wasn’t until 200 years later, when a chemist came along and had a hunch that, locked inside this pesky ore there could be a valuable element isolated in it. So when he finally succeeded in isolating the element, he stuck with the miners’ name and he called this new element cobalt, with a C and a T.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Uh-huh. So I just have to ask, though, what was actually making them sick if it wasn’t a goblin?
JOHANNA MAYER: So it turns out that when cobalt is found in nature, it’s combined with arsenic, often. So that’ll do it.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Oh, so that will do it. I’m John Dankosky. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.
All right. So tell us, Johanna, about this new podcast, Science Diction. Very exciting.
JOHANNA MAYER: Yes, Science Diction is a very nerdy new show all about words–
JOHN DANKOSKY: Shocking.
JOHANNA MAYER: –and science history. Yeah. So each episode looks at one particular word or phrase, like cobalt, and kind of digs into the science story behind it.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Excellent. So what are some of these other words that you’re looking at?
JOHANNA MAYER: So on the docket for the first season, we’ve got cobalt, meme, dinosaur, and like you mentioned earlier, vaccine.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Ah. Very timely. OK, so we’ve been hearing a lot about vaccines. Tell us the story of this word.
JOHANNA MAYER: So for that one, you have to look back to the time of smallpox which, actually is a really ancient disease. I didn’t know this before I started researching it, but there’s evidence that pharaohs got it. And it was a totally devastating disease that people just couldn’t figure out how to get rid of it. They tried everything from herbal remedies to– there’s one record of a 17th century doctor prescribing 12 small bottles of beer in a day to try to get rid of smallpox.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Hold it. That actually sounds like an OK treatment.
JOHANNA MAYER: I know. Maybe we should all try it.
JOHN DANKOSKY: We’ll try it. What the heck. I’ll get back to you. Anyway.
JOHANNA MAYER: So they couldn’t figure out what was going on until in the 18th century this doctor named Edward Jenner came along. And Edward Jenner formally tested and documented this hypothesis that had been floating around. And so the deal was, there’s this kind of apocryphal story that Edward Jenner overheard a milkmaid bragging about how she would never get a pockmarked face from smallpox because she had had this other disease called cowpox.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Aha.
JOHANNA MAYER: So yeah, here we go talking about another animal-borne disease. But cowpox and smallpox are both part of the same viral family, they just manifest differently. So smallpox, obviously super serious. But cowpox when it manifests in humans, not so bad. You just got some mild but nasty sores.
And so for a quick biology recap, the idea was that cowpox and smallpox were from the same family, so once you get infected with the relatively mild cowpox, your body develops the defenses to kick it. And then once smallpox shows up, those same defenses are able to kick in and say, oh yeah, we recognize this, and nip it in the bud.
So Edward Jenner finally tested out this theory. And he published his findings in a report called, “An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of Variolae Vaccinae”. And so here’s the very nerdy etymology part of this story. In Latin, variolae means pustules. And vaccinae means, essentially, something that comes from a cow. So variolae vaccinae basically means cow pustules, or cowpox. And that’s the basis of the word vaccine. Yes, super fun. Lovely.
JOHN DANKOSKY: So hold it. How did we start to use it more broadly than just about cowpox?
JOHANNA MAYER: Right. So Louis Pasteur actually can take credit for that. He was the one who stretched the meaning beyond using cowpox to inoculate against smallpox.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Aha. So once again, thanks to Louis Pasteur. This is going to be a fascinating podcast. Where can people find out more information, Johanna?
JOHANNA MAYER: You can subscribe to Science Diction wherever you get your podcasts. And we also want you to take a survey, if you can, at ScienceFriday.Com/DictionSurvey. Tell us if you like the show.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Excellent. Johanna Mayer is host of Science Diction. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks so much, Johanna.
JOHANNA MAYER: Thanks, John.
John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have four cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut.