People have been debating how to pronounce "apoptosis" for more than 30 years.
Here’s a question from a listener:
“Hi, Grammar Girl. This is Suzanne from Pittsburg, and I want your opinion on how you pronounce the word “apoptosis.” I am giving a talk in a few weeks, and I'd always thought the P was silent, but when I looked it up, it seems like people on the internet say that you do pronounce the P, so what is your opinion. Thanks.”
Thanks for the question, Suzanne. First I’ll answer your specific question, and then I’ll talk about pronunciation tools in general.
‘Apoptosis’ pronunciation in 1972
“Apoptosis” is the scientific name for programmed cell death, as opposed to necrotic cell death, and the Oxford English Dictionary addresses the two different pronunciations in the Etymology section of the entry for “apoptosis”—not something I see too often. And it’s interesting because it shows that the pronunciation recommendations have changed over time.
The pronunciation without the second P (“apo-tosis”) seems to be what people used in 1972 when biologists coined the word.
At that time, John Kerr, an Australian pathologist sometimes called “the father of apoptosis,” wrote in a footnote in an article in the "British Journal of Cancer" that Professor James Cormack of the Department of Greek at the University of Aberdeen suggested the name because it is used in Greek to describe petals falling from flowers or leaves falling from trees. Since it’s the “-tosis” part that means “to fall,” and that’s pronounced without the P even thought it’s spelled with a P (P-T-O-S-I-S), Kerr suggested that his discovery should be pronounced without the P, “apo-tosis.”
“Pterodactyl” is another word you may be more familiar with that has the “pt” combination where the T isn’t pronounced. It’s spelled “P-T-E-R” at the beginning, but pronounced “tero-dactyl.”
‘Apoptosis’ pronunciation in the 1990s
So that was in 1972. But I remember during my time as a graduate student in biology in the ‘90s that people argued about how to pronounce it, and we usually pronounced the P—“apoptosis.”
Finally, the Oxford English Dictionary shows that in 1994, the esteemed journal “Nature" sided with the “apop-tosis” pronunciation, calling the silent P “neither correct nor attractive,” because if I’m reading this right, when the Greek “pt” combination appears in the middle of a word, the P usually is pronounced.
The OED doesn’t include the “apo-tosis” pronunciation in the pronunciation section, but Merriam-Webster does include both pronunciations.
‘Apoptosis’ pronunciation as an in-group signal
So it’s a little confusing! I believe “apoptosis” is more common, but in some ways, this falls under industry jargon, so if there’s a way for you to find out how important people in your audience pronounce it, you might try checking on that.
That’s a very specific question I just answered, but it occurred to me that it’s also an opportunity to tell you how I find pronunciations, so you can look them up on your own when you’re wondering or having trouble.
Pronunciation in dictionaries
First, most online dictionaries have a pronunciation section, so you can check Merriam-Webster, dictionary.com, The American Heritage Dictionary, Macmillan Dictionary, and so on. They all have recorded pronunciations so you can hear them. In this case, the Oxford English Dictionary had the best information, and it requires an expensive subscription, but it’s unusual that you’d have to go to the OED to find out about pronunciation.
Pronunciation on YouGlish
Second, I love a site called YouGlish that shows you many YouTube videos that use a specific word or phrase. It takes you right to the point in the video where the word is spoken.
That’s Y-O-U-G-L-I-S-H dot com, like English, but Youglish. I look up pronunciations of names there all the time, and in a case of a word with multiple possible pronunciations, it can give you a little more information. For example, for “apoptosis,” by quickly scanning the results, I could see that people in YouTube videos about the topic were about three times more likely to pronounce the P and say “apoptosis” instead of “apo-tosis.”
Pronunciation on YouTube
Finally, sometimes even YouGlish doesn’t help, and then I usually go to YouTube itself. For example, I went to YouTube to get the pronunciation for the name of the scientist who coined the term “apoptosis,” John Kerr, spelled K-E-R-R.
YouGlish didn’t help because there appear to be multiple famous John Kerrs who pronounce their names in different ways, and nobody seemed to be talking about the scientist.
You usually have to dig around a little more on YouTube to find something that helps, but eventually I found a lecture about apoptosis that said the researcher’s name, and then I felt more confident that it was John “Cur” and not John “Care.” I’m not 100% sure that’s right, but that’s how the lecturer who seems knowledgable about the field pronounced it.
So those are the three main ways I usually find pronunciations: dictionaries, YouGlish, and YouTube.
Journalists will also often call people or businesses to get pronunciations. John Kerr appears to be retired now, but I could probably have called his old department and asked how to pronounce his name, but that would have been a little tough for me since he is in Australia.
I also sometimes put out a call on social media for pronunciation help if my main sources don’t deliver. I’m more likely to do that for foreign words where dictionaries and YouTube often aren’t as helpful.
So Suzanne, I hope that helped with your “apoptosis” question, and for everyone else, I hope you enjoyed learning how I tease out pronunciations.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.