|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.|
Phase 1: Monks in the Basement
Cells were originally little rooms for monks. The word entered English like this:
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:
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’!
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:
Looked at from a broader perspective, the history of cell gives some nice examples of how a word can change over time:
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!
- 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