Trevor Joyce was reading this Guardian article by Ian Sample when his attention was caught by the following sentence:

Contaminated surfaces, such as doorknobs and light switches – “fomites”, to use the scientific terminology – may not be such a big deal, they claimed.

So he did a little searching and sent me the following splendid bit of Wikipedia etymology:

The Italian scholar and physician Girolamo Fracastoro appears to have first used the Latin word fomes, meaning “tinder”, in this sense in his essay on contagion, De Contagione et Contagiosis Morbis, published in 1546: “By fomes I mean clothes, wooden objects, and things of that sort, which though not themselves corrupted can, nevertheless, preserve the original germs of the contagion and infect by means of these”.

English usage of fomes, pronounced /ˈfoʊmiːz/, is documented since 1658. The English word fomite, which has been in use since 1859, is a back-formation from the plural fomites (originally borrowed from the Latin plural fōmĭtēs [ˈfoːmɪteːs] of fōmĕs [ˈfoːmɛs]). Over time, the English-language pronunciation of the plural fomites changed from /ˈfoʊmɪtiːz/) to /ˈfoʊmaɪts/, which led to the creation of a new singular fomite, pronounced /ˈfoʊmaɪt/. The French fomite, Italian fomite, Spanish fómite and Portuguese fómite or fômite, however, are derived directly from the Latin accusative singular fōmĭtēm, as usually happens with Latin common nouns.

What a hoot! I’m just glad I’ll probably never have occasion to say the word out loud. (A fomite, in case you were wondering, is “any inanimate object that, when contaminated with or exposed to infectious agents (such as pathogenic bacteria, viruses or fungi), can transfer disease to a new host.”)


  1. I learned this word in US Army medical training in 1969. It never occurred to me that it has the same formation as “termites” and “satellites.”

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    In the context of the present contagious unpleasantness, I have been describing small children as “nasty little fomites” for some time now …

  3. When I first heard the word (pronounced then as /ˈfoʊmaɪts/), it was in conjunction with stuffed animals transmitting diseases among sick children in hospital care.

    As a result, for a while, I didn’t realize it wasn’t “FOAMites”.

  4. I’ll mention fumets, because why not.

  5. Fracastoro in 1546 seems to have had a solid grasp of the germ theory of disease, which I was taught was only (re)discovered around the 1870’s or later. Something to do with Pasteur, something to do with Austrian maternity hospitals.

  6. Jen in Edinburgh says

    The wikipedia article on Fracastoro himself says ‘the essential seeds of the contagion’ – it obviously is an early germ theory, but I don’t think he was using the word ‘germ’ in the modern sense.

    In 1546 he proposed that epidemic diseases are caused by transferable tiny particles or “spores” that could transmit infection by direct or indirect contact or even without contact over long distances. In his writing, the “spores” of diseases may refer to chemicals rather than to any living entities.

  7. William Boyd says

    “Fomite” = common parlance even among us “generalists” (those without PhD or MS degrees) at CDC where I worked ’78-’12.

  8. Fomite is a word I had encountered before, but I don’t think that I would have remembered what it meant. However, after reading this post yesterday, I had a dream last night, in which I was caught up in a very awkward coronavirus quarantine. I used the word fomites in my dream; then I immediately woke up enough to wonder whether I was having that kind of dream just so I could use the word. However (and this is unusual for me), I then fell back into the dream, as if my meta-commentary had never happened.

  9. Very impressive — not only the dream and metadream, but the fact that you remembered it all.

  10. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    “Fomite” = common parlance

    Not much used when biochemists chat to one another. Few (including me, before today) have any idea of the meaning.

    I’ve never heard it in French or Spanish either.

    On the other hand I should know it, as I lived in Birmingham for 16 years, and manufacturing fomites is what Birmingham grew rich on.

  11. Hence the expression, “like fomites to Birmingham.”

  12. @Athel Cornish-Bowden: The evidence so far suggests that the term may be commonplace among people (particularly physicians) working on infectious diseases, but not so much among biochemists. I have seen firsthand (and you probably have too) that here can be big disconnects between people working at the medical end of biomedical sciences and those at the organic chemistry end.

    Just today, I was trying to fix Wikipedia’s allocation of sole credit for the discovery of the structure of terramycin to Robert Burns Woodward, the preeminent organic chemist of his day (a phenomenon related to Stigler’s law of eponymy—that nothing is ever named after its earlier discoverer, but usually after somebody who is already more famous; Stigler himself identified the phenomenon as having already been noted by Robert K. Merton). This morning, Wikipedia’s page on Woodward contained the following claim (attributed without reference to another great organic chemist, Derek Barton—a pioneer in conformational analysis):

    The most brilliant analysis ever done on a structural puzzle was surely the solution (1953) of the terramycin problem. It was a problem of great industrial importance, and hence many able chemists had performed an enormous amount of work trying to determine the structure. There seemed to be too much data to resolve the problem, because a significant number of observations, although experimentally correct, were very misleading. Woodward took a large piece of cardboard, wrote on it all the facts and, by thought alone, deduced the correct structure for terramycin. Nobody else could have done that at the time.

    The actual source for the quote appears to be this appreciation, written not by Barton but by Elkan Blout (who had never heard of, although he was evidently a very prominent organic chemist). When he wrote this, Blout must have either been bullshitting or just passing on some half-remembered rumor he himself had heard. The year he gives, 1953, is preposterous and can be falsified with just glance at Woodward’s CV, which shows that the structure was published in 1952. Moreover, Woodward and the Pfizer group actually discovered the structure independently and published together when they found they agreed. I have a framed photograph, nearly seventy year old now and quite yellowed, of the Pfizer group’s ball-and-stick model, which my grandfather (first author on the paper describing the structure) kept to commemorate the discovery.

  13. David Marjanović says

    Don’t tell us that – copy & paste it on the talk page of the Wikipedia article!

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