What does the word ‘apoptosis’ mean?

Reading time: About 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: apoptosis…

The Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk won won the Man Booker International Prize for her 2018 novel Flights and the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature.

I know her, however, as the author of the wonderful 2009 book, Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead, which might variously be described as a fairy tale, a thriller and a literary murder mystery.

In addition to providing me with hours of reading pleasure, the book also gave me a word of the week: apoptosis. Here is how Tokarczuk used it:

Just like the cells of the body, its tiniest components the senses, succumb to apoptosis.

Apoptosis is a form of programmed cell death that occurs in humans, animals and other multi-cellular organisms. The average adult human loses between 50 and 70 billion cells each day as a result of apoptosis.For a typical human child between the ages of 8 and 14, approximately 20–30 billion cells die each day.

Apoptosis can be initiated in one of two ways: an intrinsic way (the cell kills itself because it senses cell stress) or an extrinsic way (the cell kills itself because of signals from other cells.)

While cellular death may sound alarming or undesirable, in fact, it’s a healthy process and insufficient apoptosis can lead to uncontrolled cell proliferation, such as cancer. German scientist Carl Vogt was first to describe the principle of apoptosis in 1842.

The word is of Greek origin, and translates to the “falling off” of leaves from a tree. Hippocrates used the term to mean “the falling off of the bones”. Debate continues over the correct pronunciation, with opinion divided between a pronunciation with the second p silent and the second p pronounced, as it is in the original Greek.

Scroll to Top