Diction Dash: You Asked, We Answer
JOHANNA MAYER: Hello. Today we're going to play a game, and it's called Diction Dash, where you guess the true meaning or origin of a word. See, for months, you have sent us words that you want us to cover on the show, and for months, we have shamefully ignored them. And over time, the list has grown to over 200 words, an insurmountable lexical mountain.
And so today, with the help of our friends and co-workers at Science Friday, we are tackling 2.5% of the beast, a.k.a. five words. You're welcome. I'm Johanna Mayer, and this is Diction Dash. All right, let's get into it. First up, radio producer Kathleen Davis. Hi, Kathleen.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: Hi, Johanna.
JOHANNA MAYER: What listener-selected word did you choose?
KATHLEEN DAVIS: So I'm feeling ready for summer.
JOHANNA MAYER: Me too.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: So I am bringing you a word that will probably elicit some warm weather feelings.
JOHANNA MAYER: I am here for it.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: So are you familiar with the dandelion?
JOHANNA MAYER: I am very familiar with the dandelion.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: Yeah, it's a wildflower. Just a side note-- there are actually a lot of species of dandelions all over the world. But the ones that we are most familiar with in North America were actually introduced from Europe. And then they just spread and spread, which they are very good at doing.
So the dandelion has this big yellow flower head. And then at the end of its life cycle, it turns into a whole bunch of seeds that float away in the wind. They're white and fuzzy, and at least for me, an important part of my childhood was blowing those seeds into the wind and spreading weeds into my parents' backyard.
JOHANNA MAYER: Absolutely. I have very clear memories of doing this.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: Of course. So if we split up the word "dandelion," there is a part of this word that's a pretty obvious allusion to an animal, right?
JOHANNA MAYER: The lion part, I'm guessing.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. But I want you to guess what the remaining part of this etymology refers to, so the "dande" part. So I have a quick quiz for you.
JOHANNA MAYER: OK.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: I want you to guess, what does the "dande" refer to? Is it a coat, a flower, smoke, or teeth?
JOHANNA MAYER: I'm going to say flower.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: So it's actually teeth, which I think is the biggest curveball of that list.
JOHANNA MAYER: Wait. So why would it be called teeth lion?
KATHLEEN DAVIS: Yeah. So this word "dandelion" actually comes from 14th century French. So if you know any French, this is a simplification of the phrase [FRENCH] which means lion's tooth.
JOHANNA MAYER: I'm still confused. It still makes no sense. Dandelions look nothing like a lion's tooth. But I do love that etymology.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: Right. So this lion's tooth part actually refers to the dandelion leaf. They're really jagged. So I guess if you hold it, like, horizontally, it would sort of look like a jaw with a bunch of sharp teeth.
JOHANNA MAYER: Huh. Dandelion-- lion's teeth. Thank you so much, Kathleen, for this wonderfully weird piece of knowledge.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: Any time. Bye, Johanna.
JOHANNA MAYER: Bye, Kathleen.
Next up, Diana Montano, the mastermind behind all Science Friday events, including-- perfectly-- Trivia Nights. Hey, Diana.
DIANA MONTANO: Hey, Johanna, how's it going?
JOHANNA MAYER: Great. I cannot wait to hear what word you have.
DIANA MONTANO: I chose 11, which I was personally also very invested in. Definitely don't know where the word came from-- or didn't.
JOHANNA MAYER: Yeah, I mean, it doesn't make sense. Because we have 13 and 14, 15. Why isn't it just one-teen?
DIANA MONTANO: It will all make sense by the end. Don't worry. So I have come up with two lies and one truth for you. And so you have to tell me which one of the origins of the word "11" is true.
JOHANNA MAYER: I'm ready.
DIANA MONTANO: All right, so your first option is that 11 comes from the Roman numeral XI, which if you say it in Greek, if you pronounce the Greek letters of X and I, you get [GREEK], which kind of evolves as languages do, into 11. I know it's not exactly right, but it's close, right?
JOHANNA MAYER: I could see it. I can see it.
DIANA MONTANO: Yeah, so it just comes from XI. That's it. The second option is from the Old English-- and my Old English is a little rusty, so don't judge me too much. [OLD ENGLISH], which translates to one left, or one left over. Kind of like if you have 11 of something and you take 10, you have one left.
And the last one is elevenses. It's a light refreshment taken at about 11:00 AM. And it's actually-- I don't know if you knew this-- elevenses is actually named after a kind of unrisen cake called elven ears. And so it's kind of-- again, as languages evolve, things sound kind of similar, so that's why it's called not just elevenses, but also 11.
All right, so you've got three options-- XI, one left, or elevenses. What do you think?
JOHANNA MAYER: I really want it to be elevenses, just because that's so fun. But I think I'm going to go with the Roman numerals, with XI.
DIANA MONTANO: Oh, I'm so sorry. I made that up.
JOHANNA MAYER: That is an elaborate lie.
DIANA MONTANO: Thank you.
JOHANNA MAYER: I'm very impressed. So do I get a second chance? Do I get a second guess?
DIANA MONTANO: Go for it. Yeah, there's two left over. We've got elevenses and the Old English [OLD ENGLISH].
JOHANNA MAYER: [OLD ENGLISH] is my guess.
DIANA MONTANO: There you go. You got it.
JOHANNA MAYER: Yes.
DIANA MONTANO: Yeah, so essentially the way that they think that it happened is that we had numbers one through 10, and we didn't really need numbers bigger than that for a long time. When we did, 11 and 12 are essentially the highest we went before we started actually coming up with real systems to count. So you needed one more for after 10, and sometimes you needed one more after 11. So 12 also follows that rule. It's like basically two left over. So that's how you get 11 and 12.
JOHANNA MAYER: It's interesting because I know in-- I think in several languages, but definitely in Japanese, the words-- it literally means, like, 10 and one, 10 and two, 10 and three. And it follows that format, building on the word for 10. But with us, we just have these totally new words for those two numbers.
DIANA MONTANO: Yeah. And in English, the number system is mostly logical. You've got 13, 14, 15, 21, 22, 23, and then it keeps going, right? Consistent pattern. So the thinking is, with these deviant number names, they just developed a lot earlier. They're old words we use a lot, so they kind of just stuck around. And so as you get higher, the numbers kind of start to make more sense, as opposed to 11-- one left over.
JOHANNA MAYER: Thank you so much, Diana, for solving this lifelong mystery for me.
DIANA MONTANO: Any time, Johanna.
JOHANNA MAYER: Lauren Young, Science Friday writer and digital producer. Hello, Lauren.
LAUREN YOUNG: Hey, how's it going?
JOHANNA MAYER: I am great. So you have a listener-suggested word for us. What are you teaching me about?
LAUREN YOUNG: I'm a digital producer at Science Friday, and I was really curious about the word "digital." So I'll give you a few origin stories, and you have to figure out the right one.
JOHANNA MAYER: OK. I have gotten every single quiz wrong so far today--
--so awesome. Let's see if this stays consistent.
LAUREN YOUNG: Maybe this will break the losing streak. OK, so number one-- it came from the invention of touch screens. Our fingers are digits manipulating and interacting with the device. Number two-- It came about in the late 1930s to early 1940s when mathematicians and engineers created the first computers that processed information as a series of digits. Or three-- it came from the cleric Digitus of Constantinople, who started a digital cult who met in caves and built small proto-calculators they believed could predict the weather.
JOHANNA MAYER: What!
LAUREN YOUNG: So which of those three do you think is right? One, two, or three?
JOHANNA MAYER: I've been so impressed with the fake answers that people are writing. They're, like, so creative. So I do not think that it's the first one with touch screens, because my guess is that this word precedes touch screens. I'm going to say B.
LAUREN YOUNG: Correct. Ding, ding, ding!
JOHANNA MAYER: Did you just totally make up the Digitus cult?
LAUREN YOUNG: Yes, completely.
JOHANNA MAYER: A very impressive lie.
LAUREN YOUNG: So yeah, obviously we associate it today with, like, new technology and the internet and computing and all that. But digital is actually a really old word. So one of its first uses, according to the Oxford English Dictionary--
JOHANNA MAYER: My best friend.
LAUREN YOUNG: --yeah-- was around the 15th century. Basically they called whole numbers, anything less than 10, a digital. It has its root in Latin, [LATIN], which comes from digitus-- but not referencing the cleric. "Digitus" relates to finger or toe, so our digits. So for a long time, that's all "digital" meant-- pertaining to fingers and toes. But we count on our fingers, on our digits, so that's probably where you get the connection between our fingers-- our digits and numbers.
So from there, engineers in the 20th century described any machine or computer that made use of binary code as a digital computer. So that was around the 1940s. This obviously has since progressed. Technology has advanced over time, and so more information can be coded digitally, like digital music on disks and stuff like that. But it all links back to counting numbers with our fingers.
JOHANNA MAYER: That was fascinating. Thank you so much, Lauren.
LAUREN YOUNG: Of course.
JOHANNA MAYER: Three words down, two to go. After the break, we learn about where domestic cats came from and how a Boy Scout craft became synonymous with pointless busy work. And I keep striking out.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Do you want me to read any of them again?
JOHANNA MAYER: No, I feel pretty solidly in my gut that the answer is A.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Why do you feel that way?
JOHANNA MAYER: It just sounds right.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah. No, that's fair. I actually-- you're wrong.
JOHANNA MAYER: When we come back.
Hey, Christie Taylor, radio producer, what word do you have for us today?
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: OK, this word, I'm really pumped about it because it's a word I keep getting stuck in my head all the time and then wondering what it means. So I'm really glad to have a solid handle on it now. And that word is "crepuscular."
JOHANNA MAYER: Crepuscular. Can you spell that for me?
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah. Crepuscular-- let's say that a few more times. C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-A-R. Crepuscular.
JOHANNA MAYER: This sounds like it's going to be something gross.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I know. Doesn't it? But your options actually are, one, A-- having a wrinkled surface like crepe fabric or crepe paper; B-- of, resembling, or relating to twilight--
JOHANNA MAYER: Ooh, the opposite of gross.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: --and then C-- feeling or expressing great sorrow or distress. So "crepuscular" is one of those three things. Do you want me to read any of them again?
JOHANNA MAYER: No, I feel pretty solidly in my gut that the answer is A.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Why do you feel that way?
JOHANNA MAYER: It just sounds right. It's all-- "crepuscular" could be wrinkly and fabric-y. It just sounds right.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah. No, that's fair. I actually-- you're wrong. But I actually went down a really big rabbit hole, like trying to figure out if there was a relationship between crepuscular and crepe paper or crepe fabric. And as far as I can tell, there is not. But the clue I'm going to give you to the real answer is cats.
JOHANNA MAYER: Cats. Oh! Oh.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Oh, OK.
JOHANNA MAYER: I know. It's B. It's got to be B.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: It's B, yes.
JOHANNA MAYER: Because--
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: OK. Great.
JOHANNA MAYER: --I think I know why. But can you tell me why?
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Sure. So just to remind everyone else, B it was-- of, resembling, or relating to twilight. More specifically, when we're talking about cats and other animals, "crepuscular" means that's when they're active. So they're active in the lower-light parts of the day, twilight or dawn. Yes.
JOHANNA MAYER: Well, I recently got two cats during quarantine, and I am very, very familiar with the schedule that cats are on.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Uh-huh. And there are a lot of animals like cats that are like that. Many animals are diurnal, which means they're active during the day. Other animals are nocturnal, meaning they're active during the night. And then we have these crepuscular animals, which are active during-- my opinion-- the best parts of the day, which is these lower-light times. And there are a lot of reasons, actually, why animals might make this choice-- so-called choice.
For cats, which house cats are actually descended from desert creatures--
JOHANNA MAYER: Really?
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: There are a lot of cats that are not desert animals, but cats are-- our house cats are most closely related to desert cats.
JOHANNA MAYER: I did not know that.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah. Yeah, and that's actually one of the big factors in crepuscular animals, is temperature range. So twilight and dawn and dusk are really good times to be active if your environment is very hot during the day and very cold at night.
JOHANNA MAYER: Huh. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. What are some other crepuscular animals?
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Great question. Some other ones are rabbits, ferrets, the very charismatic red panda. Many, many, many insects, and actually that's where we may have seen the first description of crepuscular animals, is in this 1826 zoology document about crepuscular insects. But then also moose. I'm just throwing that in-- moose.
JOHANNA MAYER: OK, nice.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So you've got a good variety.
JOHANNA MAYER: All very good animals, very, very good animals.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Right, and not all of them are desert animals, but many are.
JOHANNA MAYER: And you also identify as a crepuscular animal, right, Christie?
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I do. Like, the light's the most interesting. I get sleepy, like, at full daylight, and I just wish my day could be 5:00 AM to 12:00 PM. That would be a great way to live.
Do you want to hear a little bit more about where the word "crepuscular" comes from?
JOHANNA MAYER: I absolutely do.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So it's all Latin; Latin all the way down. And it started with this word, [LATIN] which relates to the crepuscule, or twilight or dusk.
JOHANNA MAYER: Still sounds gross.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I know, it sounds so gross, and yet it's like a beautiful time of day. And then that comes from this other Latin word, which is [LATIN], which just refers to duskiness or darkness. So there you have it. That's the word "crepuscular." It is not gross at all. And it is, in fact, one of my favorite words for describing anything that is a cat.
JOHANNA MAYER: Christie, thank you. I loved learning about this.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: You're very welcome.
JOHANNA MAYER: Alexa Lim, senior producer at Science Friday, welcome back to Science Diction.
ALEXA LIM: We meet again.
JOHANNA MAYER: What listener-suggested word do you have for us today?
ALEXA LIM: My word today is "boondoggle." Do you know what boondoggle means?
JOHANNA MAYER: I didn't even know it was a real word, so no, I do not know what boondoggle means.
ALEXA LIM: Do you have a general idea what boondoggle means?
JOHANNA MAYER: No.
ALEXA LIM: OK, all right. You know, that's the point of this, so you don't need to know what it is. There are a few definitions. This one from dictionary.com. It says, "work of little or no value done merely to keep or look busy." It can also be a verb, to boondoggle, basically to do this kind of useless work in order to look busy.
JOHANNA MAYER: I am familiar with this concept, if not the word.
ALEXA LIM: So I'm going to give you a quiz on where the word came from, specifically where in the world do you think it came from?
JOHANNA MAYER: OK, I'm ready.
ALEXA LIM: So did the word originate in, A, England, B, the Philippines, or C, the United States?
JOHANNA MAYER: Boondoggle. It's-- I'm going to say the United States, in Texas specifically.
ALEXA LIM: OK, I think you're trolling me now, because that's where I'm from. But you are correct; United States. The word "boondoggle" has often been used to refer to government waste. So it all started on April 3, 1935.
JOHANNA MAYER: Let's see. What happened on that date? 1935. Did it have anything to do with the Great Depression?
ALEXA LIM: Funny you say that, because yes. At the time, FDR-- Franklin Delano Roosevelt-- was president, and he was rolling out the New Deal. And part of that was the Works Progress Administration, the big public program during the Great Depression, trying to find a way to keep people paid and busy. So of course there was a lot of scrutiny about how money was being spent.
And on April 3, 1935, there was a hearing in front of New York City's Board of Aldermen. They call in some people who had been employed under the program to testify. And these people explained that they teach classes to kids and adults, classes like shadow puppets. There was another teacher who taught something called "eurhythmic dancing," which the teacher explained is a type of dancing that could be performed in bathing suits or shorts or any athletic costume, really.
And the aldermen found this just hilarious. They asked the teacher lots of questions clearly just meant to mock her. But the chair of the board, Bernard Deutsch, he's not finding any of this funny. He's just super exasperated listening to where this government money is going. And then one teacher, Robert Marshall, tells them about a class that-- it just sends him over the edge. It was a class where he taught kids to make what he called "boondoggles." And Deutsch, he just-- he, like, stops in his tracks and basically said, what the hell is a boondoggle?
JOHANNA MAYER: A valid question.
ALEXA LIM: And Robert Marshall explained that back in the pioneer days, a boondoggle was just any gadget that, quote, "men and boys" would like to make, to make their lives easier. He gave some examples-- tents, belts made out of pieces of leather, ropes woven together from scraps. And this explanation actually just pissed the chair off even more. He was just incensed.
They're paying for useless crafts, and to cap it off, it was this ridiculous-sounding word. So after that, the word "boondoggle" just went viral. Newspapers picked up the story. Republicans were incensed that they were wasting all this money. FDR, on the other hand, he kind of like the word. He was like, boondoggle? He's like, if the country could boondoggle its way out of the Depression, he'd be OK with that.
So after that, "boondoggle" got this politicized association with government waste. But the question is, when did the word "boondoggle" first show up? Robert Marshall had said it was an old pioneer word. No evidence for that. Instead, as the story goes, there's a guy from Rochester named Robert Link, who said he invented the word. He said that the word just popped in his head when he saw his newborn son, kind of like squirming around, and he thought, boondoggle.
JOHANNA MAYER: [LAUGHING] That's so insulting.
ALEXA LIM: And a few years later, the Boy Scouts are looking for a name for this kind of scout craft, these things where you take strips of leather, or it can be other materials, and braid them into a little rope, and you can use it as a bracelet. You've seen these things probably. They still exist.
JOHANNA MAYER: Oh, I have made these things.
ALEXA LIM: Robert Link, who said he invented the word "boondoggle," he's a former Boy Scout. And he sees this craft, and again, he is like, those are boondoggles.
JOHANNA MAYER: What a convoluted path.
ALEXA LIM: OK, so to recap, man sees squirmy baby, calls it a boondoggle. Then man sees braided things made by Scouts, calls them boondoggles. Then boondoggle becomes any kind of dude-DIY gadget. And when the word makes its way to the relief spending hearing in New York City, "boondoggle" transforms into shorthand for wasteful government spending. But-- twist--
JOHANNA MAYER: Of course there's a twist.
ALEXA LIM: Of course. Not everyone believes Robert Link's story that he invented it.
JOHANNA MAYER: I don't believe Robert Link's story that he invented it. He seems suspect.
ALEXA LIM: Well, there's another theory that the word "boondoggle," way back, actually does come from the Philippines. The Filipino word [FILIPINO] means mountain, but is also the name of several regions in the Philippines. And the theory goes that American soldiers in the Philippines took the word [FILIPINO], turned it into "boon dogs," like going to the boon dogs, and then they start saying "boondoggling." So a lot of gaps in this theory, but it's in the running.
So in a final conclusion, we don't know for sure how the word "boondoggle" first came into existence. But thanks to a New York City hearing looking at government spending in 1935, we now use "boondoggle" to refer to wasteful activity.
JOHANNA MAYER: I love that story, Alexa.
ALEXA LIM: OK, great.
JOHANNA MAYER: All right, well, that was mildly humiliating for me. But perhaps I will be able to redeem myself, because we are going to be doing more of these Diction Dashes. And we still want your suggestions. So if you have a word that you've always wondered about, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. That's email@example.com. We will add your word to the lexical mountain, and we might just cover it.
Science Diction is produced by me and Elah Feder. Elah is also our editor and senior producer. Daniel Peterschmidt is our composer. Robin Palmer fact-checked this episode. Nadja Oertelt is our chief content officer, and she says regular coffee just has an inadequate protein quotient. So every morning, she mashes up some kidney beans into her brew, and eats it with a spoon as she watches the sunrise.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I know, it sounds so gross, and yet it's like a beautiful time of day.
JOHANNA MAYER: We'll be back in a couple weeks. See you then.