Science Diction

By Science Friday and WNYC Studios

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María Elena Díaz
 Mar 11, 2020
so far so good!

vj
 Mar 11, 2020
Great podcast!

Description

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.

Episode Date
Rocky Road: Why It Sounds So Dang Delicious
17:53

Rocky Road is just a good name for an ice cream flavor. So good, in fact, that two ice cream institutions have dueling claims to Rocky Road’s invention. It’s a story of alleged confessions and a whole lot of ice cream-fueled drama. If it were just the flavor that made Rocky Road so special, every company could have just made their own concoction of nuts, chocolate, and marshmallows, named it “Muddy Street” or “Pebble Lane,” and called it a day. But there’s a linguistic reason why Rocky Road just sounds so dang delicious—and it’s studied by linguists and marketers alike.

 


 

In this episode, we mention the Bouba Kiki Effect. Imagine two shapes: One is a pointy, jagged polygon, the other an ameboid-like splotch. Which shape would you name “Bouba,” and which would you name “Kiki?” In study after study, 90% of people agree—the pointy shape is “Kiki” and the rounded shape is “Bouba.” This so-called “Bouba-Kiki Effect” holds in many languages, and has even been demonstrated with toddlers. But why the near-universal agreement? Cognitive psychologists like Kelly McCormick have several theories. Watch this Science Friday video to learn more. 

 

Guest: 

Alissa Greenberg is a freelance journalist. 

Dan Jurafsky is a professor of linguistics at Stanford, and the author of The Language of Food. 

Will Leben is professor emeritus of linguistics at Stanford, and is the former director of linguistics at Lexicon Branding. 

Footnotes And Further Reading: 

Read Alissa Greenberg’s full (highly entertaining) story of the history of Rocky Road ice cream

The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky is a word nerd’s dream, and contains more about his experiment on cracker and ice cream brand names. 

Credits:

Science Diction is hosted and produced by Johanna Mayer. Our editor and producer is Elah Feder. We had additional story editing from Nathan Tobey. Fact checking by Michelle Harris, with help from Danya AbdelHameid. Daniel Peterschmidt is our composer. Sound design and mastering by Chris Wood. Our Chief Content Officer is Nadja Oertelt. 

Aug 04, 2020
Ketchup: A Fishy History
17:53

At the turn of the 20th century, 12 young men sat in the basement of the Department of Agriculture, eating meals with a side of borax, salicylic acid, or formaldehyde. They were called the Poison Squad, and they were part of a government experiment to figure out whether popular food additives were safe. (Spoiler: Many weren’t.) Food manufacturers weren’t pleased with the findings, but one prominent ketchup maker paid attention. Influenced by these experiments, he transformed ketchup into the all-American condiment that we know and love today. Except ketchup—both the sauce and the word—didn't come from the United States. The story of America’s favorite condiment begins in East Asia.

Guest

Alan Lee is a freelance linguist and native Hokkien speaker. 

Footnotes And Further Reading

The Poison Squad by Deborah Blum tells the very entertaining history of Harvey Wiley, the early days of food regulation in the United States, and, of course, the Poison Squad.

The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky is a word nerd’s dream, and contains more on ketchup’s early history. Special thanks to Dan Jurafsky for providing background information on the early history of ketchup for this episode. 

Can't get enough ketchup history? Check out Pure Ketchup: A History of America's National Condiment With Recipes by Andrew F. Smith.

Learn more about ketchup's early origins in Dan Jurafsky's Slate article on "The Cosmopolitan Condiment." 

Credits

Science Diction is hosted and produced by Johanna Mayer. Our editor and producer is Elah Feder. We had additional story editing from Nathan Tobey. Our Chief Content Office is Nadja Oertelt. Fact checking by Michelle Harris, with help from Danya AbdelHameid. Daniel Peterschmidt is our composer, and they wrote our version of the “Song of the Poison Squad.” We had research help from Cosmo Bjorkenheim and Attabey Rodríguez Benítez. Sound design and mastering by Chris Wood.

Jul 28, 2020
Science Diction Digs Into Food
1:43

We’ve all been thinking about food a lot lately. Whether you’re on the sourdough starter train, treating yourself to takeout, or you finally have the time to cook your way through a book of family recipes, food feels omnipresent these days.

So, for the next few weeks at Science Diction, we are all about the science, language, and history of food! If you like your meal with a sprinkle of etymology, a dash of history, and a side of science, these episodes of Science Diction will hit the spot. Here's a sneak peek!

Jul 23, 2020
Spanish Flu
16:03

In the fall of 1918, people in Philadelphia were beginning to talk about a new virus that was snaking through the city. But the facts and scope were muddy and uncertain—and the city decided to push forward with a highly-anticipated parade. About 200,000 people showed up for the parade, and packed onto sidewalks.

Halfway across the country, St. Louis, Missouri looked very different in the fall of 1918. Businesses shuttered, movie theaters went dark, and students stayed home. 

Just like today, cities across the U.S. responded to the 1918 influenza pandemic differently. And just like how Donald Trump initially referred to coronavirus as the “Chinese virus,” the “Spanish flu” is also a misnomer that’s endured for centuries—the 1918 flu wasn’t Spanish at all.

Footnotes And Further Reading: 

Special thanks to Alan Kraut for his work on “Immigration, Ethnicity, and the Pandemic,” and to Chris Naffzinger, for his reporting on St. Louis’ response to the 1918 pandemic.

For this story, we read many old articles from newspapers across the country, all archived on newspapers.com.

The CDC’s Pandemic Influenza Storybook paints a vivid picture of life during the pandemic.

We first learned about Philadelphia’s Liberty Loan Parade from the Washington Post’s reporting.

Credits: 

Science Diction is hosted and produced by Johanna Mayer. Our producer and editor is Elah Feder. We had additional story editing from Nathan Tobey, and fact checking help from Michelle Harris. Our composer is Daniel Peterschmidt.

Apr 28, 2020
Quarantine
16:16

Quarantine has been on many of our minds lately. The phrases “shelter in place” and “self-quarantine” have filled up our news, social media, and conversations since the first inklings of the coronavirus pandemic. But this is far from the first time cities and countries have used the practice of physical separation to battle the spread of disease. 

You might think of Mary Mallon, who many know as “Typhoid Mary.” In the early 1900s, she spent nearly 30 years  in a cottage on a small island in New York City’s East River, all to prevent her from infecting others. But we’ve been using quarantine for millennia—well before we even understood germs existed and that they can be transmitted from person-to-person. And the origin of the word stretches all the way back to the mid-14th century, when Europe was swept by one of the biggest losses of human life in history: the Black Death.

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Guest:

Alexander More is a historian at Harvard University and Long Island University in Brooklyn, New York. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Footnotes And Further Reading: 

Special thanks to Alexander More, Judith Walzer Leavitt, and Karl Appuhn.

If you want to learn more about Mary Mallon, we recommend Judith’s book, Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health.

Credits:

Science Diction is hosted and produced by Johanna Mayer. Our producer and editor is Elah Feder. We had additional story editing from Nathan Tobey, and fact checking help from Michelle Harris. Our composer is Daniel Peterschmidt. Charles Bergquist played the part of George Soper.

Apr 07, 2020
Cobalt
16:43

Cobalt has been hoodwinking people since the day it was pried from the earth. Named after a pesky spirit from German folklore, trickery is embedded in its name.  

In 1940s Netherlands, cobalt lived up to its name in a big way, playing a starring role in one of the most embarrassing art swindles of the 19th century. It’s a story of duped Nazis, a shocking court testimony, and one fateful mistake.

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Guest: 

Kassia St. Clair is a writer and cultural historian based in London.

Footnotes And Further Reading: 

For fascinating histories on every color you can imagine, read Kassia St. Clair’s The Secret Lives of Color.

Thanks to Jennifer Culver for background information on the kobold.

Read more about Han van Meegeren in The Forger’s Spell by Edward Dolnick and in the 2009 series “Bamboozling Ourselves” in the New York Times.

Credits: 

Science Diction is written and produced by Johanna Mayer, with production and editing help from Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata, with story editing help from Nathan Tobey. Our theme song and music are by Daniel Peterschmidt. We had fact-checking help from Michelle Harris, and mixing help from Kaitlyn Schwalje. Special thanks to the entire Science Friday staff.

Mar 10, 2020
Dinosaur
11:54

At the turn of the 19th century, Britons would stroll along the Yorkshire Coast, stumbling across unfathomably big bones. These mysterious fossils were all but tumbling out of the cliffside, but people had no idea what to call them. There wasn’t a name for this new class of creatures. 

Until Richard Owen came along. Owen was an exceptionally talented naturalist, with over 600 scientific books and papers. But perhaps his most lasting claim to fame is that he gave these fossils a name: the dinosaurs. And then he went ahead and sabotaged his own good name by picking a fight with one of the world’s most revered  scientists.

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Footnotes And Further Reading: 

Special thanks to Sean B. Carroll and the staff of the Natural History Museum in London.

Read an article by Howard Markel on this same topic.

Credits: 

Science Diction is written and produced by Johanna Mayer, with production and editing help from Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata, with story editing help from Nathan Tobey. Our theme song and music are by Daniel Peterschmidt. This episode also featured music from Setuniman and The Greek Slave songs, used with permission from the open-source digital art history journal Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide. We had fact-checking help from Michelle Harris, and mixing help from Kaitlyn Schwalje. Special thanks to the entire Science Friday staff.

Mar 10, 2020
Vaccine
12:09

For centuries, smallpox seemed unbeatable. People had tried nearly everything to knock it out—from herbal remedies to tossing back 12 bottles of beer a day (yep, that was a real recommendation from a 17th century doctor), to intentionally infecting themselves with smallpox and hoping they didn’t get sick, all to no avail.

And then, in the 18th century, an English doctor heard a rumor about a possible solution. It wasn’t a cure, but if it worked, it would stop smallpox before it started. So one spring day, with the help of a milkmaid, an eight-year-old boy, and a cow named Blossom, the English doctor decided to run an experiment. Thanks to that ethically questionable but ultimately world-altering experiment (and Blossom the cow) we got the word vaccine.

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Footnotes And Further Reading: 

Special thanks to Elena Conis, Gareth Williams, and the Edward Jenner Museum.

Read an article by Howard Markel on this same topic.

We found many of the facts in this episode in “Edward Jenner and the history of smallpox and vaccination” from Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings.

Credits: 

Science Diction is written and produced by Johanna Mayer, with production and editing help from Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata, with story editing help from Nathan Tobey. Our theme song and music are by Daniel Peterschmidt. We had fact-checking help from Michelle Harris, and mixing help from Kaitlyn Schwalje. Special thanks to the entire Science Friday staff.

Mar 10, 2020
Meme
12:25

Remember that summer when the internet was one Distracted Boyfriend after another—that flannel-shirted dude rubbernecking at a passing woman, while his girlfriend glares at him? Everyone had their own take—the Boyfriend was you, staring directly at a solar eclipse, ignoring science. The Boyfriend was youth, seduced by socialism, spurning capitalism. The Boyfriend could be anyone you wanted him to be.   

We think of memes as a uniquely internet phenomenon. But the word meme originally had nothing to do with the internet. It came from an evolutionary biologist who noticed that genes weren’t the only thing that spread, mutated, and evolved.

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Guest: 

Gretchen McCulloch is an internet linguist. For some fun, check out her book, Because Internet, and her podcast Lingthusiasm. She’s also appeared on Science Friday.

Footnotes And Further Reading: 

For an academic take on memes, read Memes in Digital Culture by Limor Shifman.

Read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.

Check out the first time the word meme appeared in an internet context, in Mike Godwin’s 1994 Wired article called “Meme, Counter-meme.”

Credits: 

Science Diction is written and produced by Johanna Mayer, with production and editing help from Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata, and we had story editing help from Nathan Tobey. Our theme song and music are by Daniel Peterschmidt. We had fact-checking help from Michelle Harris. Special thanks to the entire Science Friday staff.

Mar 10, 2020
Science Friday Presents: Science Diction
1:36

From the people who make Science Friday, we bring you Science Diction, a bite-sized podcast about words—and the science stories behind them. Hosted by SciFri producer and self-proclaimed word nerd Johanna Mayer, each episode of Science Diction digs into the origin of a single word or phrase, and, with the help of historians, authors, etymologists, and scientists, reveals a surprising science connection. For example, did you know the origin of the word meme has more to do with evolutionary biology than lolcats? Here's a sneak peek!       

Feb 27, 2020