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  • 00:00 - Introduction

  • 01:05 - Segment 1: Honour or Manure, Peera? (Short Story)

  • 09:24 - Segment 2: The Origin of "Onomatopoeia" (Metaphor History)

  • 22:11 - Segment 3: Science Comics (Communication Topic)

  • 34:37 - Segment 4: Talk With Sophie Elschner (Guest Interview)


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To my bodacious family and friends. Near and far. Old and new. This is Kevin Mercurio on the mic. And welcome to the 42nd episode of the Metaphorigins Podcast.


To show support if you find yourself enjoying this content, please do take a few seconds to rate and subscribe to the podcast on Apple or Spotify or whatever platform you are listening to this on, as it truly does help independent podcasts reach new people through essentially minimal effort. You can always leave a small review as well, and follow @metaphirigins on Instagram, that’s @metaphorigins, where I will be posting all updates, as well as on my personal website: Like every season, I will hold another draw on my 50th episode for… a thing, yes, a great thing. Have a listen in later episodes for more information about this, thing, whatever it ends up being.


With that, we jump right in. Today will be a little bit different as I explore an occurrence where language emulates the environment it hopes to describe.


And we’re off. You’re the first one at your stop. It’s a bit cold and damp, the morning air is condensing your breath in every exhale. The rest of the students in your neighbourhood show up, waiting for that yellow bus. No one is speaking. Today, your peers are focused on their class notes held stressfully in front of their faces. You hear whispers of regurgitated facts and teacher opinions, novel words and literary devices. As the bus arrives with screeching brakes, you all climb in and take your regular seats.


It was your class’s annual English exam. But this isn’t your typical spelling bee contest, historical writing trivia or playwright-themed essays. It is an annual tradition only some students had the cleverness, the tenacity, the granted inner gift of truly understanding diction. Some would even call it a game, one created by the school’s very peculiar English teacher, Mr. Peera Trebek.


Mr. Trebek is an outstanding fellow. Many of his classes were absolutely legendary in how they were delivered to each group of students. Often, he would show up in a full grey suit, delivering his lecture slides in his renowned style of a bright blue background and yellow font. The more you participated in his class, the more fun it was, and many of the students would race to provide an answer to his open questions. It got so competitive that Mr. Trebek would install a light on each desk that would turn on the moment a student pressed a small button. For example, when summarizing the final moments of the Shakespearan classic Hamlet, one of his lecture slides would read, “He was the loyal friend who died behind the curtains of the queen’s dwelling”. DING! “Who is Polonius!” One of the students would shout after his light determined he was the gold medalist of button pressing.


Now, Mr. Trebek isn’t without his faults. His idiosyncratic mannerisms leaned both in the positive, encouraging side as well as the negative, condescending side. He lacked the awareness of typical social cues that would alert people if certain comments should be said, or the empathetic courtesy of apologizing for comments that were said. You remember one of your classmates just debilitated after the death of their pet goat, who had died eating too much food. When finding out about the reasoning for their sadness, Mr. Trebek paused and said, “Was the food good at least?”. There was one incident where one class of students was interested in nerdcore, a sub-genre of hip-hop music characterized by lyrical subject matter considered of interest to nerds and geeks. When finding this bit of information out, along with topics of certain nerdcore anthems, Mr. Trebek loudly proclaimed, “HAH! So music for losers, by losers.” He was reprimanded by the School Principal for this remark.


Despite these social attributes, you are fascinated by Mr. Trebek, specifically for his organization of the School’s Annual English exam. Contrary to most tests in your school, the annual English exam has only one question. Each year hopes to spark open mindedness among its participants so that only a select few are identified as true masters of rhetoric. For example, one year had a poetry question requiring students to recite a poem under the prose of a famous writer if major themes of their works were reversed, and the previous year had a comedy question that consisted of telling a joke with the punchline delivered at the start.  The highest mark that year involved a knock knock joke in which the person knocking was actually someone inside.


Upon arrival to the school grounds, you and your peers head directly to your English room. There, you meet Mr. Trebek, in his archetypical suit, wearing a bright red bowtie. Once seated, he leans in and states, “English is your passion. You have made it this far. Your claim of truly understanding the didactic, eccentricity of my lessons is in jeopardy, and we will see who prevails! Good luck! Hapew!” He spits to the floor, a tradition often done in French theatre.


The classroom falls ever silent, student heads aimed at the minute hand of the clock hanging above the chalkboard at the front of the room. As the clock ticks the hour, Mr. Trebek pulls down his reading glasses and says, “You may now begin”.


Exam booklets are flipped over in unison, and you read the front page: ENG1101, Annual Exam. There is only 1 question. You will be marked on not just your accuracy to the facts, but the creativity and innovation of your thought process. The theme of this exam is “absence”. Ugh, your head throbs with this ambiguity. You remember a lesson uttered by none other than the great Socrates of Ancient Greece, “The worst part about going for a walk is not knowing whether you should have worn a helmet.”


You journey onto the first and only page and read the question to yourself: You are on a gameshow titled, “Honour or Manure, Peera?”, hosted by your beloved teacher Peera Trebek. On this gameshow you are judged by coming up with combinations of how things would sound, giving it an honourable rating, or sending it to the manure pile. The catch is that you cannot use a particular letter. For example, a cat-dog mutant in which you cannot use the letter -O- might sound something like, “meef” or “weew”. The sound of person laughing like a police siren in which you cannot use the letter -E- might be heard as, “waah, wooh, waah, wooh”. Your question, for all the Trebek dollars in this fictional world, is the following: What is the sound that describes what a contestant on this game show is doing, where you cannot use the letter R.


You think about this for a moment. What is a contestant doing on this gameshow? Are they not just thinking about an answer to the question? Is the contestant audibly making sounds to the host to try and work out the solution? And the letter R, why was that chosen? You suppose R is the most frequently used consonant in the English language, used at a frequency of about point 075.


Absence… you remember reading the theme of the annual exam. Absence. Perhaps absence did not mean the absence of a letter in your provided answer, but absence from within your own mind. What is the opposite of absence? Presence. Presence of the words on the only page given to you for this exam. You read the question again… A gameshow, hosted by your teacher, a gameshow called “Honour or Manure, Peera?” The gameshow title, a question, a noun, technically an environment or circumstance that had brought you and your peers into this fictional world to obtain Trebek dollars… Could it not also be a verb? Like if you are out riding your bike, could you not say that you are also biking? The noun becomes the verb.


In the space below, you write your answer, “Hono-mono, Pee-a?”


Alright, that was difficult! The amount of times I had to rewrite the lead-up in order to get to that final line was more than you would think. It is certainly harder to think about the premise for this segment in reverse, using the pronunciation of a word to be literal and metaphorical. Anyway, with this homage to the late great gameshow host of Jeopardy, how did this unique wordplay attribute the meaning of words to their pronunciation?


What is the origin to the term, “Onomatopoeia”?


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Most of this information was obtained from many articles and videos discussing the uses and origin of this term. All sources will be mentioned in the description.


There’s something so remarkable about the human ability to share ideas. I talk about this concept in the previous episode when diving into public speaking, likely the first form of societal communication. It’s so fundamental to our way of living that the circumstances in which we fail to do this coherently lead to much frustration or the diagnosis of below average mental capacity.


From the moment we are born, we start to develop this trait to communicate through language. If you’re like me, this baseline language is English, which for historical reasons is now the most spoken language in the world. According to an article published this year by the language and cultural learning service Berlitz, over 1.4 billion people can speak English to some degree. Though, if you count only first-language speakers, Mandarin becomes the most spoken language with 929 million native speakers. Other languages in the top 5 include Hindi (one of 22 official languages of India), French (having 29 French-speaking countries in the world), and Spanish (the third most used language on the internet). In fact, according to the article, “A bilingual person who speaks English and Spanish […] can access over 60% of everything published on the web”.


Let’s remain on the English train for a moment, a train only colonizer-sympathizers would only board to begin with (but bear with me). English, despite being the most spoken language in the world, is also quite weird and redundant. Like all languages, there’s sentence structure rules, grammar laws and verb tenses that hold true most of the time. But English is, to put it one way, very odd. One 2018 article published on Babbel highlights 9 of the weirdest things about the English Language, such as words that look like they rhyme but don’t, like the 4 words cough, rough, though and through; or how about words that look exactly the same, but with different meanings and pronunciations depending on the context, like the word record or REcord. My favourite on this list is how adjectives in English must be put in a specific order. As stated in the article “This is why it sounds right to say “that nice little old plump white dog,” but it sounds plain weird to say “that old white plump little nice dog.”


But what does it mean to understand a language? It’s defined by Oxford Dictionary as “consisting of words used in a structured and conventional way and conveyed by speech, writing, or gesture.” Its second definition is a bit more general, “a system of communication used by a particular country or community.” This allows us to branch our understanding of language to something that is socially accepted by, at the very least, two people. You can have a secret method of communicating with your sibling or best friend, and that could be considered a language. Hell, at its core, language is just the acceptance that a certain sound carries meaning. When I say look at your hand, you agree that the sound hand is whatever that thing is extended off the side of your body. But that sound is obviously not that thing extended off the side of your body. If it was, you would essentially be just some character in a story, existing whenever I, the writer, bring you into existence. Well, are you?


This boundary line between sound and communicating meaning is where today’s term straddles. Onomatopoeia is described by the poetry foundation as “A figure of speech in which the sound of a word imitates its sense (for example, “choo-choo,” “hiss,” or “buzz”). In “Piano,” D.H. Lawrence describes the “boom of the tingling strings” as his mother played the piano, mimicking the volume and resonance of the sound (“boom”) as well as the fine, high-pitched vibration of the strings that produced it (“tingling strings”).” 

There’s so much fun you can do with this technique. I highly advise you check out a rap song by YouTuber Guava Juice, titled “Hit Em With That Onomatopoeia”, where he says the following “Quack quack, meow meow, woof woof, moo, yeah we comin’ for you, me and all of the sounds of the zoo”.


In essence, as mentioned in a 2022 Reader’s Digest Article by writers Morgan Cutolo and Meaghan Jones “The word “onomatopoeia” is also used to describe the words themselves, rather than just the process.” Previously unknown examples of this literary device include ones like the common word for a dirigible, aka blimp “which came to be when a British lieutenant was inspecting one of the aircrafts and snapped his thumb off of the gasbag. The snap on the taut fabric created a noise that he interpreted as “blimp,”, or cliche where, “a French printer decided to make plates with common sayings on them that they could use repeatedly so they wouldn’t have to rewrite it every time. The noise the plate made when printing the words sounded like “cliché.”


These words spring into existence as naturally as the sounds they are meant to describe. Their purpose transcends the usual one for language and progresses into a realm of their own. There’s a phenomenon in language called sound symbolism, described by an 2021 article on Grammarly as “the tendency for clusters of words with similar meanings to share certain sounds.” An example they provide is the abundance of G-L words to describe things that shimmer, words like “glow, gloss, glisten, glitter, glimmer, gleam, glint, glare, glaze, glitz.” They also mention the famous 2001 study in which, “They told English speakers in the U.S. and Tamil speakers in India that two shapes, one round and one spiky, were called Kiki and Bouba. Then they asked which name went with which shape. A whopping 95 to 98 percent of both English and Tamil speakers said the rounded shape was Bouba and the spiky shape was Kiki.” Perhaps there is some hidden baseline meaning behind the sounds we call words.


Onomatopoeia is a rare instance in which a word and the concept it carries is not arbitrary. Remember the hand example? There’s nothing hand-y about how hand sounds, or the way hand is written. Does this mean that some words DO have a natural relationship to the world? Mentioned in an educational video by Oregon State Professor of American Literature Raymond Malewitz, “As the great linguist Ferdinand de Saussure observed over a century ago, there is never a singular, natural relationship between a word and the concept that it signifies […] he reasons, onomatopoeias sound different as we move from language to language.  In English, we say “cock-a-doodle-do” to describe the crowing of a rooster.  In French, however, the word is “cocorico,” and in German it is “kikeriki.” The same goes for hiccup, which is “hoquet” in French and “hipo” in Spanish.” Interestingly, outside of language differences, one poem directly brought up that anthropomorphizes the definition of onomatopoeia to technology is one by William Carlos Williams, in his 1946 poem the Injury: 


“From this hospital bed

I can hear an engine


  in the night:


—Soft coal, soft coal,

  soft coal!”


But okay, let’s stop bouncing around the idea and whoosh to the significance of this segment, after all time-s-a-tickin. Where did the term onomatopoeia originate from? Defined in a 2021 article on Masterclass as well as the online etymology journal, it is a Latin word that can be traced back to the Greek words “onoma” for word or name, and “poiein” for compose or make. Regarding who coined the term, mentioned by its entry on, this title was given to English Author Henry Peacham “in his 1577 book on grammar and rhetoric called ''The Garden of Eloquence.” He defined it as ''when we invent, devise, fayne, and make a name intimating the sound of that it signifieth.”


I end this segment with a final abstract thought. With all the conscious meaning that words carry, there is also an element of unconscious meaning as well. It’s something we pick up on automatically, emotional reactions towards certain words used by your interlocutor. If anything, it’s important that we choose our words carefully, to fully get across what we are trying to say, trying to make the other person feel, emotionally and physically. In your next discussion, when you think your point isn’t coming across, you can always try to, “hit em with the, hit em with the, hit em with the Onomatopoeia!”


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For this communications segment, I want to dive into a form of communication that we all have experience with, a format whose usage has entertained many academics on social media, whose origins have inspired each of us to reach our greatest potential, as well as strive for a moral and just society. And that topic is science comics.


I’m sure you would agree that there has been an excessive amount of superhero storylines on screen lately. You have the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the Avengers and their many individual side plots, ranging from Guardians of the Galaxy, to Eternals, to TV shows like WandaVision, DareDevil and the Punisher. There’s also the DC Extended Universe with the Justice League and their individual experiences, from the Dark Knight, to Wonder Woman, to Suicide Squad. Each of which bids some protagonist in the form of a hero or anti-hero fighting obvious evils who, to quote Alfred Pennyworth from the Batman series, “…want to watch the world burn.”


Like many, I am always up for stepping into the fictional reality of these superheroes, whether that’s in film, gaming or literature. Being engrossed in such a dream-like existence sparks a curiosity in me akin to the novelty I felt when I was little, looking at these characters in awe of their abilities. In my opinion, it is the stories that reflect our own reality, where good and evil are not so clear, where moral questions can be explored, that pique my interest the most. In film, this can be seen in the DCU’s Joker or in Marvel’s Infinity War. In gaming, this can be played in Batman: Arkham Asylum or in Infamous. In literature, this can be read in my favourite comic book, Watchmen.


I will stay with the latter, just to nerd out a bit here. Watchmen is a comic book series written by Alan Moore, with art by Dave Gibbons and John Higgins. It was first published as a complete single volume edition all the way back in the 1980s. The story, established through a 9-panel grid per page, depicts an alternate universe where anonymous superheroes have changed the world. However, we as the readers find ourselves in the Cold War Era, where the US and the Soviet Union have surpassed peace talks and are ready to annihilate one another. A further aspect in this series is that anonymous superheroes are being mysteriously murdered, bringing together a old team called the MinuteMen to search for answers. It is the dynamic between the MinuteMen that guide the story through relationships, both friendly and filled with betrayal, and ultimately lead these heroes to make choices that are, to put it lightly, questionable at best. Its fantastic social commentary about geopolitical issues is likely the origin to many of my interests in politics, globalization, and uniting humanity in a common goal, something we should be doing with major issues like genocide, climate change and COVID-19.


We may associate comic books to those halcyon years, back when life was simpler: cooking was provided, clothes were picked out for us, taxes were confusing (and still are), and bones didn’t ache when running for more than a minute. Some may be magnetically repelled by the term comic book and agree that the alternative “graphic novel” is more worthy of their approval. Mentioned in a 2020 Medium article on the history of comics and graphic novels, ”First coined in 1964 by Richard Kyle in a comics fanzine, ‘graphic novel’ is now a term widely used by readers and publishers. Its acceptance among the comics community however is a bit trickier. The term is scoffed at by some creators as an unnecessary and pretentious distinction from comics. […] Neil Gaiman, in response to a claim that he does not write comic books but graphic novels, said: “I felt like someone who’d been informed that she wasn’t actually a hooker; that in fact she was a lady of the evening.”


Obviously comics have been a staple of entertainment well before many of us would even guess. Also mentioned in the article, “Comic strips first appeared in newspapers in the late 19th century, with popular strips collated into book form starting with The Yellow Kid in the US in 1895.” This was followed by many known titles like the Adventures of Tin Tin, Archie Comics and Peanuts. At the time, westernized countries weren’t the only culture that proved to enjoy the artistic flavour of the comic strip; in Japan, Manga became incredibly popular, leading to many anime series that Funamation and CrunchyRoll addicts shuffle through endlessly. If you haven’t checked out Attack on Titan, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventures, or Dorohedoro, please do, after this podcast episode of course.


The ability for comics and its recognized style to appeal to mass audiences is perhaps a good segue into what I would like to address. There’s no question that comics are appearing more and more outside of their original domain of stapled papers, and into the digital age. Perhaps the comic has indeed evolved into the frowned-on graphic. If I were to ask what comics can you recall, I would expect the responses to be more of those published on the internet. Titles like Cyanide & Happiness, The Oatmeal and Sarah’s Scribbles, all establishing themselves as webcomics and only later producing anything in print. It is unsurprising that any medium would choose to lay back and not adapt to the fast-changing landscape of the 21st century. Hell, I remember seeing my first Cyanide & Happiness comic on Facebook, and Sarah’s Scribbles on Instagram, companies that fall under the larger corporation, Meta.


Social media companies originally helped us connect with those we know. Now, these same companies help connect us with those we don’t know but have similar interests. This is indeed the avenues that, and we finally got there, any scientists choose to promote their work and the topics they are passionate about. I myself use Twitter the most, tweeting about topics related to microbiome science (my research topic at the moment), publishing milestones like publications and conference appearances, as well as sharing content that interest my community of followers. What better content is out there than easily digestible notions about complex scientific topics?


Cue the science comic. You may have seen them before, Randall Munroe’s XKCD and Jorge Cham’s PhD Comics spring to mind. If you go to XKCD’s website, you almost get a nostalgic blast from internet’s past, having a very basic template for sharing illustrations, and a name with “no phonetic pronunciation -- a treasured and carefully-guarded point in the space of four-character strings.” PhD Comics, more geared towards those in the academic sphere, also has quite a basic web layout. Both comics attempt to provide visualizations of ideas that researchers are working on right now. In fact, Cham actually did a Tedx Talk titled, “the Science Gap”, in which communication from scientists to the public, and perception of the public about scientists, is again, to put it lightly, questionable at best. When do scientists get the opportunity to communicate outside of experts in their field? And through what opportunities does the public view researchers outside of their esteemed institutions?


Science comics provide an answer to bridge this gap, and it is certainly catching on. In a 2018 article written by researcher turned illustrator Matteo Farinella in the American Scientist, he touches on 3 key aspects that make science comics such a worthwhile educational tool. The first is visualization where, “Comics are first and foremost a “sequential art” […] and the shape, size, and relationship between panels can convey as much information as the text itself. For this reason, many comic scholars have focused on the transitions between panels and argued that the layout or “braiding” of a comic is just as important (if not more so) as the quality of the writing and the drawings […] Behind the deceptively simple look, a carefully designed comic can combine the best of both worlds: the synthesis of a diagram with the flow of good writing.“ 


The second is storytelling where, “Comics may offer a way to circumvent this problem by introducing fictional characters where no human narrators are available. Indeed, many science comics seem to adopt this strategy: In Mark Schultz’s The Stuff of Life, we witness the evolution of life on Earth through the eye of an alien scientist; in Jay Hosler’s Last of the Sandwalkers, we learn about entomology by following the adventures of some beetles; in Maris Wicks’s Coral Reef, a fish provides a tour of the reef; and in both Neuro-comic and The Quantum Universe, a fictional character is literally transported into a scientific wonderland.” 


And last is metaphors, a kind of constant theme of this podcast, where “science comics seem to be particularly suited to extended visual metaphors. Immune cells can become policemen in a constant war against germs, the brain can become a forest of neurons, and online activity can project a digital shadow, just to name a few examples. These metaphors, far from being mere narrative devices, have the potential to make abstract scientific concepts more tangible and accessible to a nonexpert audience. Moreover, beyond simple understanding, it has been shown that metaphoric framing can affect attitudes (and possibly behavior) toward scientific and health information.”


In fact, Farinella published his findings in another 2018 review article within the Journal of Science Communication, where he concludes “The research reviewed here strongly suggests that comics have great potential for engaging wide and diverse audiences with STEM subjects. However, carefully designed empirical studies are required to understand the full effects of comics on learning, engagement and attitude toward science.” Despite how comics are enjoyable and relatable, the study behind whether they are actually helping us reach a better understanding is limited. This is echoed in another 2020 article published in a blog post on PLOS SciComm, highlighting several studies often cited in favour of science comics that lack proper control groups. It mentions, “We are already drawing from a very small pool of data to make conclusions, and even the quality of all the studies is not up to the necessary standard. There are many promising leads […] but more research will need to be conducted to prove that science comics improve academic performance. It may even be necessary to adapt the way we approach our studies because […] different types of students can receive different results when using cartoons.”


In my opinion, science comics are just one of several methods of, as Cham of PhD Comics mentioned, closing that gap between the researcher, and the citizen, of which the researcher is interested in supporting, whether that be their health, the demystification of reality, or just their general quality of life. From humble beginnings, the science comic has emerged from the web format and even into print, demonstrating that an understanding of even the most difficult scientific topics can be achieved. It is almost like it reigns as its own hero against an antagonist of ignorance and obscurity. A name too easy to equate with SciComm itself. As fast as the science allows. As powerful as the locomotive it built. Able to leap into any mind in a single panel. Look! On the page! It’s a story, its a metaphor, its a science comic!


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For my second guest of the season, I’ll be interviewing someone who not only is conducting science communication research, but is also the creator of her own science comic.


She is a cognitive scientist and psychologist by training, and wrote her doctoral thesis on the relationship between eye movements and aesthetic appreciation at the University of Konstanz, Germany. Currently, she is doing postdoctoral research at the Fraunhofer Cluster of Excellence for Integrated Energy Systems, where she works in their research group for science communication. She is also the author and artist behind psychoSoph – a science comic on psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience, which she uses to teach people not only about familiar topics, but also psychology phenomena that are quite surprising to find, even if you’re immersed in the field! 


Please welcome the illustrious communicator, Sophie Elschner.


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There’s always a spark in someone’s voice when discussing something they are truly passionate about, something that they dedicate their valuable time towards, that isn’t a typical priority in the natural sense. I hope you enjoyed learning about onomatopoeia and science comics. Be sure to check out how science communicators like Sophie describe complex ideas in more illustrative, metaphorical ways. Anyway, just some updates on my end. I actually just came back from a trip to Prague to meet with my brother who I haven’t seen in over a year. If you’re listening to this Pat, why did I jump out of the plane first??? Haha, we ended up not just touring around the city, but also hopping on and off a plane doing tandem skydiving with professional divers. That was certainly an experience I would recommend. It was like for the whole duration of that experience, from being picked up in the city via their shuttle bus to the moment you are dangling out the door of a tiny airplane, that nothing else matters. You are just moments from potential death due to gravity, and all that stress you’ve built from thinking about going skydiving, to your career responsibilities, to even your personal life concerns, all practically jump out the door as well. And once your body adjusts to the speed of falling, it’s the first time in a while I’ve felt truly in the moment, looking around the Czechia countryside in adrenaline fuelled awe. But that’s it for this episode, thank you so much for listening. Do remember to follow the podcast Instagram page for all updates in cool visual format, and as always, anyone following will be placed into the draw to win some Metaphorigins swag, whatever that ends up being, on my 50th and Season 5 Finale. Rate, subscribe, share, message, megaphone this episode to your family and friends. Tune in for the next episode, but until then, stay skeptical but curious.


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