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The Question

Biological cells, prison cells, terrorist cells, cell-phones, and even cellars—what’s with all the cells? In this post, we’ll explore the curious historical thread that connects all these ‘cell’ words.

Etymology of cell

Etymology of ‘cell’

Phase 1: Monks in the Basement

Cells were originally little rooms for monks. The word entered English like this:

  • Cella was the Latin word for a storeroom, basement chamber, or any kind of small room.
  • In medieval Christian monasteries, it was common for monks to have to sleep in tiny rooms—cold, bare, places, with the rooms often crammed together in rows in the basement. Since the monks spoke Latin, a medieval monk would call his ‘little room’ his cella. Eventually, the word cella narrowed to mean only a monastic room.

    Cell thumbnail illustration, picture of cells in a monastary floorplan

    Cells (C) in a monastery

  • In the Middle Ages (around 1300 A.D.), English speakers borrowed the monks’ Latin term—though they shortened it slightly—to make it an English word: cella small room for a monk or a hermit.

Phase 2: Hooke sees a Hidden World

Then, in 1665, the scientist Robert Hooke (1635-1703), almost by accident, gave cell a whole new meaning. It happened like this:

  • In the 1660’s, Hooke was working at Oxford University, with a research position that gave him access to the leading-edge scientific technology of the day: the microscope.
    Cell thumbnail illustration, picture of Hooke's microscope

    Hooke’s microscope

    Though Hooke did not invent the microscope, he made big improvements to the early design—and with his new and improved model, he found he was suddenly able to see stuff that no-one had ever seen before. Flies have compound eyes? Fleas have furry legs? Who knew?!

  • Amazed, Hooke spent thousands of hours peering at samples. He made copious descriptive notes. He drew detailed sketches. Then, he collected these and published them in a beautifully illustrated book, which he called Micrographia (first published in 1665):
    Cell thumbnail illustration, picture of a flea from Micrographia

    Hooke’s flea

    A foundational work in modern biology, Micrographia was—and remains—a hugely popular and influential work.

  • But the thing about great discoveries is: they always outstrip language. After all, if you’re the first person in human history ever to see something, how can there be a word for it?Take what Hooke saw when he looked at cork. Under Hooke’s microscope, Hooke saw that cork (at least in its dried form) consists of rows and rows of little rectangles, like this:
    Cell thumbnail illustration, Hooke's drawing of cork

    Hooke’s cork

    A fascinating discovery—but what to call these things? They look kind of like caverns. They kind of look like bubbles. And they also—most significantly for posterity—looked to Hooke kind of like those stacked rows of cells that you’d find in a monastery basement. Hedging his metaphors, then, Hooke described the structure of cork like this (emphasis added): ‘…each Cavern, Bubble, or Cell, is distinctly separate from the rest.’ (Micrographia: p. 116).

  • Now, when he used the term Cell there, Hooke didn’t know that he was looking at biological cells. He didn’t know that biological cells exist, as a general phenomenon. But as other scientists went on to find analogous structures in all living things, they realized that Hooke had actually discovered something absolutely fundamental; and so it was Hooke’s initial descriptive term that stuck. And that is where cell gets its most important modern sense: the basic unit of all life.

    Cell thumbnail, biological cells

    Cells

Incidentally, history does not record why the scientists chose Hooke’s monk-room metaphor, rather than his other stabs at describing the structures—if they had, biology today would literally be the study of ‘caverns’, or ‘bubbles’!

Illustrations of recent extension in meaning for 'cell'

Recent adaptations of ‘cell’

Phase 3: Terrorists, and Cell-Phones

Now, cells—except in the most primitive organisms—don’t operate in isolation; cells commonly join together, to become units within complex interconnected networks. That is why, for example, your brain-cells are smarter than a bag of amoebas.

In modern times, English speakers have therefore started to use cell to talk not just about biological units, but more generally about units within any kind of complex network. For example:

  • In the 1920’s, English speakers started to use cell to describe units within structured social organizations—especially organizations with a military-style command structure. This is why we now talk about units like a terrorist cell.

    Cell thumbnail illustration, network sense

    Network cells

  • Then, in 1984, some technologists looked at an interconnected network of telecommunications towers—the first public wireless phone network—and decided that they were building a ‘cellular network’. This is where the term cellular phone, and cell phone come from.

    Cell thumbnail illustration, cell-phone sense

    Cell tower

Deep Thoughts

Looked at from a broader perspective, the history of cell gives some nice examples of how a word can change over time:

  • Narrowing – At times we narrow the meanings of our words, as the late Latin speakers narrowed cella from any small room to specifically a monk‘s room.
  • Borrowing, Adapting – We borrow words from other languages—and as we borrow words, we change them, as when we shortened cella down to cell.
  • Crystallizing Metaphors – We take words that were at first meant just as analogies, or metaphorical descriptions—like Hooke’s invocation of the shapes of the monk’s ‘cellas’—and make that into the fixed, primary meaning of the word.
  • Bleaching Meaning Components – And finally, we commonly bleach out aspects of the meaning, ignoring some features of the described object (e.g. biology) but keeping others (e.g. networks of units).

With cell and it’s roots, it just happened that all four patterns of change applied to the same root. And that is why the same word went in such different directions that, today, you might combine DNA testing on cells with tracking from cell-phone records to catch a terrorist cell hiding in a cellar!

Illustration of ancient etymology of 'cell'

Ancient roots of ‘cell’

Notes

  •  Cellar is also from Latin cella, as noted above.  In this case, Latin speakers added the -arium suffix (for ‘location’) to cella, which made cellarium; we borrowed that via French, and shortened it down to cellar.
  • The term prison cell obviously harkens back to the old monk’s cells—same sparse quarters, just a different kind of occupant. The penal sense of cell started pretty late, though—only around 1720.
  • If you want to go back a bit further in history, it might interest you to know that Latin cella actually comes from an older European root, *kel, which meant something like to cover, to conceal. This, via an ancient shift of k > h in Germanic languages, is also the source of modern English hole. Go figure.

Sources

  • Dyson, James. A History of Great Inventions. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2001
  • Jardine, Lisa. The Curious Life of Robert Hooke. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005
  • “Oxford Dictionary of English.”, Second Edition, Revised, Soanes, Catherine and Angus Stevenson eds.
  • “Oxford English Dictionary.”, Oxford University Press
  • Online Etymology Dictionary
  • Yenne, Bill. 100 Inventions That Shaped World History. New York: Blue wood Books, 1998, 2005

Monastery floor plan by Daniel Tibi (Dti) | daniel-tibi.de (graphic created by Daniel Tibi (Dti)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Microscope drawing (of his own microscope) by Robert Hooke ([Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image of a blue fly from: “Micrographia, or, Some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses….”, by Robert Hooke, 1667. Copied from NOAA Photo Library.

Image of a flea by Robert Hooke (Micrographia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Cork drawing by Robert Hooke (Micrographia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Biological cells from chlamydomonas, a single-celled green alga, from Dartmouth Electron Microscope Facility, Dartmouth College http://remf.dartmouth.edu/imagesindex.html

Cellphone tower is by Luke [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

All other illustrations are original creations of Dr. Dexterous, © 2013-2014 DexterousTongue

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