germ

Definitions

Agriculture

  • noun a microorganism that causes a disease, e.g. a virus or bacterium
  • noun the central part of a seed, formed of the embryo. It contains valuable nutrients.

Food

  • That part of a seed, grain or nut from which the new plant starts to grow, equivalent to an embryo. The remainder of the seed is the food supply for the growing plant.

Medical

  • noun a part of an organism capable of developing into a new organism

Slang

  • noun an irritating, unpleasant or contemptible person. A schoolchildren’s term of criticism or abuse, typically applied to fellow pupils or younger children.

Origin & History of “germ”

As its close relatives germane and germinate (17th c.) suggest, germ has more to do etymologically with ‘sprouting’ and ‘coming to life’ than with ‘disease’. It comes via Old French germe from Latin germen ‘sprout, offshoot’, which may go back ultimately to the Indo-European base *gen- ‘produce’ (source of English gene, generate, genitive, etc). The meaning ‘sprout, from which new life develops’ persisted into English (and still occurs in such contexts as wheatgerm – and indeed in metaphorical expressions like ‘the germ of an idea’). then at the beginning of the 19th century it began to be used to put into words the idea of a ‘seed’ from which a disease grew: ‘The vaccine virus must act in one or other of these two ways: either it must destroy the germe of the small-pox … or it must neutralize this germe’, Medical Journal 1803. By the end of the century it was an accepted colloquialism for ‘harmful microorganism’.
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