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A scanning electron micrograph of human spermatozoa, formerly known as animalcules (sense 1).
An 18th-century illustration of animalcules (sense 2) seen through microscopes.

Learned borrowing from Late Latin animalculum (lowly or small animal) + English -cule (diminutive suffix). Animalculum is derived from Latin animal (animal; living creature) + -culum (diminutive suffix);[1] and animal from animāle, the nominative neuter singular of animālis (animate, living; relating to living creatures), from anima (breath; life; soul, spirit) (ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *h₂enh₁- (to breathe)) + -ālis (suffix forming adjectives of relationship). The English word is analysable as animal +‎ -cule.



animalcule (plural animalcules)

  1. (physiology, historical) A sperm cell or spermatozoon; also, the embryo that was formerly thought to be contained inside a spermatozoon in a fully developed state. [from 17th c.]
    • 2001, David M. Friedman, “The Gear Shift”, in A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis, New York, N.Y.: The Free Press, →ISBN, page 76:
      [Antonie van] Leeuwenhoek's most mysterious finding was yet to come, however. Inside the animalcules in the thickest part of the semen he saw / all manner of great and small vessels, so various and so numerous that I do not doubt that they be nerves, arteries and veins. …
  2. (zoology, archaic) A microscopic aquatic animal, including protozoa and rotifers. [from 17th c.]
    • 2011, John Jeremiah Sullivan, “La·hwi·ne·ski: Career of an Eccentric Naturalist”, in Pulphead, New York, N.Y.: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, →OCLC, pages 212–213:
      If we are part of nature, then we are synonymous with it at the metaphysical level, every bit as much as the first all-but-inorganic animalcules that ever formed a chain of themselves in the blow hole of a primordial sea vent.
  3. (obsolete) A small animal. [16th–20th c.]



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  1. ^ animalcule, n.”, in OED Online Paid subscription required, Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, December 2022; “animalcule, n.”, in Lexico,; Oxford University Press, 2019–2022.

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animalcule m (plural animalcules)

  1. animalcule

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