I am asking this question after writing an answer on English Language & Usage sent me on an expedition through the internet. The originating question asked about the meaning of the word proper after the word cell.

At first I was certain that it was a biology term, describing some sort of cell. I am not a biologist. After some pushback, I researched a bit and found what seems to be the original definition in a book from 1853.

It is a mistake to apply the word cell sometimes to the cell with a membrane, sometimes to the cell without a membrane, and sometimes to the membrane without the cell. Since the contents of the cell constitute the essential part of it (see p. 155), since it forms, before the secretion of the (cellulose-) membrane (pp. 156-167), a separate entity, possessing its own, essentially proper, membranous boundary (the primordial utricle, pp. 169-173), we must call this internal body the cell proper, unless we restrict the term cell to the enclosing wall or chamber, and give the internal body another name. If the name is restricted to the internal body, we cannot, in the great majority of cases, say that new cells are formed in the old, but merely that they are formed out of the old, for even the primordial utricle shares in the division, in the propagation of cells by division. Therefore when daughter-cells are said to be formed in the mother-cells, or to slip out from the mother-cells, or mother-cells are said to be dissolved and absorbed, these phrases must be admitted only as conveniently abbreviated expressions, "mother-cell" being here used instead of maternal cell-membrane.
(bold emphasis added)

My question is: Is cell proper considered a biology term or concept that would be understood by an expert of cellular structures?

  • $\begingroup$ I have never heard this term - so it most likely never catched. $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Aug 3, 2016 at 19:02
  • $\begingroup$ this sounds like an old term that, to my knowledge, is no longer used - not surprising given how much more we know about cellular physiology/structure and functions $\endgroup$ Aug 3, 2016 at 20:56

1 Answer 1


This isn't a special biology term, it's just an English usage thing. "The X proper" just means "the X, strictly speaking". As well as the question you quote, see also this question on ELU.SE. I would expect this use to be understood by many biologists who speak English as a first language, but there are certainly clearer ways of saying it.

Regarding this particular example, the author appears to be proposing a way of defining a vacuolated plant cell. It sounds like he is proposing a definition that excludes the cell wall, but he confusingly calls the cell wall the "(cellulose-)membrane" (the 'primordial utricle' is the cytoplasm, I think). However, I am afraid I am not an expert in the history of plant cell biology and can't really comment on whether it is a useful contribution to, or synthesis of, the state of knowledge at the time.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I agree with the suggestion that this is mostly just a standard usage of "proper." However I would caution that most scientists would probably not understand "the cell proper" to exclude the cell membrane! If I ever wrote that, it would be in a sentence like, "The extracellular matrix, while not part of the cell proper, is an essential aspect of a cell's behavior." $\endgroup$
    – AJK
    Aug 4, 2016 at 4:43
  • $\begingroup$ @AJK absolutely. Although I would probably need to read more of the original text to work out exactly what the author is describing - it seems he's talking about something to do with the membranes of vacuolated plant cells, and I haven't studied plant cell biology since first-year undergrad. That said, I can think of very few biological definitions from 1853 that remain helpful today! $\endgroup$
    – arboviral
    Aug 4, 2016 at 18:59
  • $\begingroup$ @AJK have read a bit more around it and added what I understand of his proposed definition, with caveats. Please do feel free to elaborate on it. $\endgroup$
    – arboviral
    Aug 4, 2016 at 19:12

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