When I was still an undergraduate student at the University of British Columbia, I attended a Department of Microbiology & Immunology seminar on the mechanisms of cell death. The speaker insisted that one of these mechanisms, “apoptosis”, was supposed to be pronounced given the Greek roots suggested by Kerr, Wyllie, and Curry in 1972: with a silent “p” – /ˌæpəˈtoʊsɪs/ (ah-puh-TOH-sis), assuming we split “apoptosis” into the roots “apo” and “ptosis”.

How do we, the Department of Immunology at the University of Toronto, pronounce “apoptosis”? In a rather unscientific study, I informally queried 38 students and faculty on how they pronounced this word that is so crucial to our field (see graphic below). According to an actual Greek from our department —Dr. Phil Kousis, a former postdoc from Dr. Cindy Guidos’ lab —“apoptosis” should be pronounced roughly as /ɑˈpoʊptoʊˌsiːs/ (ah-POPE-toh-sees). Despite this, the answers from other researchers varied widely. By and large, our department prefers the pronunciation /eɪˌpɒpˈtoʊsɪs/ (ay-pop-TOH-sis), regardless of position and location of research. This is subtly different from Kerr, Wyllie, and Curry’s aforementioned “ah-puh-TOH-sis”. It is easy to notice how unintuitive that pronunciation is — where in English do we consider “pt” to have a silent “p”, apart from when it starts a word? Interestingly, most people tend to transform “/æ/” (-ah) to “/eɪ/”(-ay), despite the spelling of “apoptosis” suggesting otherwise; the reasons behind this transformation seem to be unknown.

Amusingly, I received several unusual comments from respondents, ranging from mood-dependent pronunciations of the word to different degrees of difficulty for non-native English speakers to pronounce it. One respondent noted that she converted to “ay-pop-TOH-sis” after joining the department. “Apoptosis” turned out to be so confusing to pronounce that another respondent asked, “Is there something wrong with the way I am saying it?!” One outlier respondent even answered with five syllables instead of four!

Overall, our department’s preference for the pronunciation of apoptosis definitely has a nice onomatopoeic ring to it, especially when we imagine cells “popping” as they undergo cell death. The debate as to whether that pronunciation is the correct one does not seem to be “dying out” anytime soon.

Above: Students and faculty in the Department of Immunology were surveyed on their pronunciation of “apoptosis” (cell death). The distribution of pronunciations for individual syllables within the word is shown for all survey respondents (n = 38). Each set of bars rep- resents a single syllable, which is written to the left in International Phonetic Alphabet; the approximate verbal pronunciation is indicated in parantheses. Arrows connect the most commonly used syllables. The length of bars indicates the relative number of participants who polled to that syllable. Survey conducted and analyzed by Simon Eng. Below: Breakdown of pronunciation preferences by research position and location.
Above: Students and faculty in the Department of Immunology were surveyed on their pronunciation of “apoptosis” (cell death). The distribution of pronunciations for individual syllables within the word is shown for all survey respondents (n = 38). Each set of bars rep- resents a single syllable, which is written to the left in International Phonetic Alphabet; the approximate verbal pronunciation is indicated in parantheses. Arrows connect the most commonly used syllables. The length of bars indicates the relative number of participants who polled to that syllable. Survey conducted and analyzed by Simon Eng.
Below: Breakdown of pronunciation preferences by research position and location.
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