• Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) the loosening or relaxing of a bandage

When a bandage is loosened either to improve a patient’s comfort or promote bloodflow after healing, that process is called apoptosis.

Anyone who’s medically-minded, however, might better recognise that term as the medical word for cell death—either as a positive consequence of targeted treatments like chemotherapy, or as a negative result of certain conditions and diseases, like neurodegenerative disorders.

Others might know it better as a term for the relaxation of a muscle, or the loss of anatomical support or tension that causes problems like drooping eyelids. And any nineteenth century botanists reading this blog (unlikely, but still) might better know apoptosis as a botanical name for the shedding of a flower’s petals. So how does one word come to have so many diverse meanings?

The answer lies in its etymology. Apoptosis joins two Greek roots: apo– (essentially meaning ‘away from’ or ‘off’) and ptosis (literally ‘a falling’). That particular combo gives us quite a nonspecific word overall, meaning simply ‘a falling away’—and it’s that lack of specificity that’s led to apoptosis being used in all manner of different contexts in English since the eighteenth century.

Of all its meanings, it’s likely the botanical meaning came first, though evidence of apoptosis being used in this context in a naturalized way in English is scarce. The medical sense emerged in the mid 1700s, and by the Victorian era apoptosis was beginning to appear in a growing number of medical dictionaries, variously defined as “falling down of any part through relaxation”, “a loosening”, or (as in Robley Dunglison’s 1845 Medical Lexicon) “a relaxation of bandages.”

The use of apoptosis to refer to cell death is a much more modern development, tied into the vast improvements in both medical treatments and medical understanding that took place in the twentieth century. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the earliest use of the word in this sense to the title of a paper, ‘Apoptosis: A Basic Biological Phenomenon’, published in the British Journal of Cancer in 1972.

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