30 episodes

What does the word “meme” have to do with evolutionary biology? And why do we call it “Spanish flu” when it was never Spanish? Science Diction is a podcast about words—and the science stories within them. If you like your language with a side of science, Science Diction has you covered. Brought to you by Science Friday and WNYC Studios.

Science Diction Science Friday and WNYC Studios

    • Science
    • 4.7 • 484 Ratings

What does the word “meme” have to do with evolutionary biology? And why do we call it “Spanish flu” when it was never Spanish? Science Diction is a podcast about words—and the science stories within them. If you like your language with a side of science, Science Diction has you covered. Brought to you by Science Friday and WNYC Studios.

    It'll Never Fly: When Gene Names Are TOO Fun

    It'll Never Fly: When Gene Names Are TOO Fun

    In 1910, a fruit fly geneticist named Thomas Hunt Morgan noticed something strange in one of his specimens. Out of his many, many fruit flies—all with brilliant red eyes—a single fly had white eyes. This fruit fly turned out to be a very big deal. From those white eyes, Morgan eventually figured out that genes can be sex-linked, confirmed that genes exist on chromosomes, and won the Nobel prize.

    But he also cemented his legacy another way, with what he chose to name that gene: "white". It might sound uninspired, but it kicked off a tradition that decades later gave us names like spatzle, hamlet, and ken and barbie. Here and there, a name went too far, but overall, fanciful names brought joy to researchers and worked well until genes like these were discovered in humans, and everything went awry.

    Johanna and Senior Producer Elah Feder team up with Helen Zaltzman of The Allusionist to talk about fruit flies, genes, and whether it’s ok to name a gene after a German noodle.

    Plus, after much demand, we bring you... the origin of "defenestration"!

    Guests:
    Helen Zaltzman is the host of The Allusionist.

    Credits:
    Science Diction is produced by Johanna Mayer and Senior Producer Elah Feder. Our composer is Daniel Peterschmidt. Nadja Oertelt is our Chief Content Officer.

    • 25 min
    What Do You Call A Tiny Octopus That’s Cute As A Button?

    What Do You Call A Tiny Octopus That’s Cute As A Button?

    What pigment do we owe to the squid? And what do you name a teeny tiny octopus that’s cute as a button? In this episode of Diction Dash, we’re talking about those clever and often tentacled marine invertebrates: Cephalopods. 

    Diana Montano, Science Friday’s resident trivia maestro, quizzes Johanna. But this time, Johanna calls in reinforcements—from Science Friday host Ira Flatow himself.

    If you want us to cover a word on the show, get in touch! Give us a call, leave a message, and we might play it on the show. The number is 929-499-WORD, or 929-499-9673. Or, you can always send an email to podcasts@sciencefriday.com. 

    This episode is part of Science Friday's annual Cephalopod Week! Join the cephalo-bration. 

    Guests: 
    Diana Montano is the Outreach Manager at Science Friday.

    Ira Flatow is the Host of Science Friday.

    Footnotes & Further Reading:
    Join Science Friday’s annual Cephalopod Week celebration of our favorite, often tentacled, marine invertebrates.

    In the episode, we mention Science Friday’s video on the Adorabilis—check it out, and prepare to say “awww.” 

    For a detailed explanation of how to pluralize “octopus,” Merriam-Webster has your back.

    Sponsor a cephalopod! With every donation of $8 made during Cephalopod Week, you’ll get a special Cephalopod Badge, featuring your choice of ceph, your first name and city. You’ll find it swimming in our very own Sea of Support.

    Credits: 
    This episode of Science Diction was produced by Johanna Mayer with Diana Montano and Katie Feather. Elah Feder is our Senior Producer. Daniel Peterschmidt composed all our music and they mastered this episode. Nadja Oertelt is our Chief Content Officer.

    • 11 min
    Language Evolves: It’s Literally Fine

    Language Evolves: It’s Literally Fine

    If you read the title of this episode and cringed, you’re not alone. At Merriam-Webster, editors and lexicographers receive countless letters grousing about the addition of certain words to the dictionary. And here at Science Diction, we get our fair share of emails pointing out our linguistic missteps. 

    But the more you dig into the origins of words, the more you notice that when it comes to language, “correctness” is a slippery concept. In fact, some of our most beloved English words - nickname! newt! - were born of mistakes. 

    In this episode, Merriam-Webster lexicographers Emily Brewster and Peter Sokolowski explain the mistake-ridden origins of our words, how language evolves, and how wrong becomes right. Plus, we answer a listener question about the most exported word in the English language.

    Guests: 
    Emily Brewster is a Senior Editor and Lexicographer at Merriam-Webster. 

    Peter Sokolowski is a Lexicographer at Merriam-Webster.

    Credits: 
    Science Diction is produced by Johanna Mayer and Senior Producer and Editor Elah Feder. Daniel Peterschmidt composed our music, and they mastered this episode. Nadja Oertelt is our Chief Content Officer.

    • 26 min
    Serendipity and Syzygy: Fortunate Accidents

    Serendipity and Syzygy: Fortunate Accidents

    How did a country's name end up inside the word, “serendipity"? And what’s a “syzygy"? And, more importantly, why does it have so many y’s?   

    Over the past year, several listeners have written to us asking about these two words. Now, we answer—with a little help. Eli Chen and Justine Paradis join us for a round of Diction Dash, where Johanna tries (and usually fails) to guess the correct origin or meaning of a word. 

    If you want us to cover a word on the show, get in touch! Give us a call, leave a message, and we might play it on the show. The number is 929-499-WORD, or 929-499-9673. Or, you can always send an email to podcasts@sciencefriday.com. 

    Guests: 
    Justine Paradis is a reporter and producer for Outside/In from New Hampshire Public Radio. 

    Eli Chen is senior editor of Overheard at National Geographic. 

    Footnotes & Further Reading: 
    More on how a syzygy helped free the Suez ship at the Wall Street Journal

    Read The Three Princes of Serendip

    Credits: 
    Science Diction is produced by Johanna Mayer and Senior Producer and Editor Elah Feder. Daniel Peterschmidt composed all our music. Fact checking by Robin Palmer. Nadja Oertelt is our Chief Content Officer.

    • 14 min
    Ambergris: How Constipation Becomes A Luxury Product

    Ambergris: How Constipation Becomes A Luxury Product

    Last month, Science Diction received a letter from a listener named Ben. He wanted to know about ambergris, a strange substance that washes up on beaches from time to time.

    So today, we’re talking about this thing that for centuries, rich people coveted, rubbed on their necks, and even ate, all without having any idea what it really was. If they had known, they might have put their forks right down.

    Plus, Science Diction now has a phone number! If you, like Ben, want us to cover a certain word, you can call in, leave us a message, and we might play it on the show. Call 929-499-WORD or 929 499 9673. Or send us an email at podcasts@sciencefriday.com.

    Guest: 
    Christopher Kemp is the author of Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris.

    Special thanks to Ben Gartner for emailing us and inspiring this episode.

    Footnotes & Further Reading: 
    To learn more about ambergris, read Christopher Kemp’s book Floating Gold.

    Credits: 
    Science Diction is produced by Johanna Mayer and senior producer Elah Feder. Daniel Peterschmidt is our composer. Robin Palmer helped fact check this episode. Nadja Oertelt is our Chief Content Officer.

    • 13 min
    Orphans Delivered The World's First Vaccine

    Orphans Delivered The World's First Vaccine

    When the first COVID-19 vaccines were approved for emergency use last December, it felt like - at last! - our nightmare was nearly over. Then came reports of botched distribution efforts, from broken websites to factory mix-ups. Scientists created the vaccine in record time, but it was beginning to look like that might’ve been the easy part.

    But if you think vaccine distribution was a logistical nightmare in 2021, try doing it in the early 1800s. In 1796, Edward Jenner discovered that cowpox worked as a vaccine against smallpox. All you had to do was pop a cowpox sore on someone’s skin and transfer the lymph fluid (a.k.a. pus) into a cut on a second person. Soon, they'd develop a few sores, but when they recovered, they'd be immune to smallpox, a far more serious disease.

    This worked well enough for short distances, but when smallpox began to destroy Spanish colonies in the Americas, Spain had to figure out a way to move the vaccine across the ocean. Their solution was resourceful, effective, and very ethically dubious. Science writer Sam Kean brings us the story of the world's first vaccination campaign.

    Guest: 
    Sam Kean is a science writer, author of The Bastard Brigade, and host of the podcast Disappearing Spoon from the Science History Institute.

    Footnotes & Further Reading: 
    Listen to our episode on the origin of the word ‘vaccine.’

    Listen to a full episode about this story on Sam Kean’s podcast, Disappearing Spoon.

    Credits: 
    Science Diction is produced by Johanna Mayer and Elah Feder. Elah is our Editor and Senior Producer. Daniel Peterschmidt is our composer. Nadja Oertelt is our Chief Content Officer.

    • 14 min

Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5
484 Ratings

484 Ratings

Nickname8375 ,

Wonderful

I really like what you’ve done here. I appreciate the format of 1 word per show with enough story to get into it, but it doesn’t drag on. I don’t find my attention wandering like with some podcasts. The host is great. I’m not bothered by “vocal fry” as others are, her voice is fine. The feeling is of a friend telling me an interesting thing they learned over lunch. Can’t wait for more episodes!

LRJalarned ,

WWF

Just wondering……. Syzygy. Gonna play that in WordsWithFriends.

AK Transplanted ,

Stop the Vocal Crack!!

Honestly, I love the content. It’s well-written and engaging. But the host speaks with a vocal crack that makes her sound a little like an adolescent. This is a podcast, folks! Clean up your diction!

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