Thursday, September 12, 2019

Language of Confusion: Perfect Cell, Part I

Hey, I haven’t etymologized “cell” before! That’s the only criteria I need to do it! Also, this will be a multi-parter, but not a big multi-parter. I think we’ve had enough of that for now.

Cell showed up in the early twelfth century meaning a small monastery, before a small room for a religious figure inside the monastery. It comes from the classical Latin cella, which just means cell (and is an excellent brand of chocolate covered cherries), and is related to celare, to hide. That actually can be traced to the Proto Indo European kel-, to cover, conceal, or save. So because monks/nuns hide away in tiny rooms, that’s what a cell became known as.

Obviously, it’s morphed a lot since then. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that it was used in a prison sense. And yet amusingly, it was used in reference to brain in the fourteenth century, as people used it in reference to different “rooms” of the brain having different functions. In biology, it was actually used in the seventeenth century—so again, this predates the prison sense, although back then it was in refreence to different cavities in anything, like in honey combs, and it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that it specifically referred to first an electric battery, and then a few decades later an organism. As for the phone usage, cell there is short for cellular, which showed up in 1753 meaning “resembling cells”. That word is actually from the Latin cellularis, of cells. It was in 1977 that it was first used in relation to phones, because mobile phone systems were divided into “cells” served by transmitters. And then it was shortened again into cell phone.

Cell is related to a few other words by way of kel-, and of course that’s where things get amusing. Conceal is also descended from it, having shown up in the early fourteenth century as concelen. It’s from the Old French conceler, to hide, and the classical Latin concelare, to hide. Con- is probably intensive here, and we’ve already seen celare, so the word is “to really hide”. There’s also ceiling, which showed up in the mid fourteenth century as celynge. It comes from the Middle English ceil, to put a cover or ceiling over, and before that, the Old French celer, to conceal, and you see where this is going. It comes from celare, too. A ceiling covers/hides you, so…

Finally today, color. Yes, really. It showed up in the early thirteenth century meaning skin color, from the Anglo French culur/coulour and Old French color, color or complexion. It’s from the Old Latin colos, which means “a covering”, and is also from kel-. Fun fact, the Old English word for color was hiw, AKA hue.

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. All comes from hiding away...
    Now, who hid my cell phone?

  2. I knew cell phone was short for cellular. Perhaps we should adopt the Brit term, mobile. I don't know if that'd be less confusing, though.

  3. Didn't realize 'cell' had such a wide variety of meanings and a history to each of them. What brought to my mind first when I saw the word first was the biological sense -- the smallest and basic unit we are all made up of.

  4. I knew that the word cell in referring to organism cells came from the whole religious thing. I've always thought that was kind of cool.


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