Merriam-Webster Word of the Day: Symbiosis


The Merriam-Webster Word of the Day is symbiosis. Read on for what it means, how it’s used, and more.

What It Means

In the field of biology, symbiosis refers to the relationship between two different kinds of living things that live together and depend on each other. In broader, non-scientific contexts, symbiosis means “a cooperative relationship,” such as between two persons or groups.

// A perfect symbiosis was at work between the café’s co-owners, with Stephanie managing the day-to-day operations and Maria handling the finances.

SYMBIOSIS in Context

“‘I think our little butterfly house ventures have become ever more important in reminding people of the symbiosis between nature, between insects, between humans and the whole thing,’ says Stephen Fried, who’s built the enclosures across Western Europe. Butterflies and other insects play a myriad of roles in our natural systems—from pollinating plants to knocking out harmful pests.” — Sara Kiley Watson, Popular Science, 1 July 2022

Did You Know?

Symbiosis was adopted by the scientific community in the late 1800s, coming ultimately (via German) from the Greek symbíōsis, meaning “living together, companionship.” Of course, there are a lot of ways to live together and, accordingly, several flavors of symbiosis. When a biological symbiosis between two organisms is mutually beneficial, it is termed mutualism. For example, oxpeckers are birds so named because they “peck” ticks off of infested cattle and wild mammals, a likely satisfying arrangement for both parties, and textbook mutualism. When one organism lives off another at the other’s expense, however (as, for one icky instance, head lice do), it’s called parasitism. If only parents of elementary school students could call upon an equivalent of oxpeckers to engage in mutualistic symbiosis when the need arose, but alas.

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