Printable Version
Pronunciation: fo-mait Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: An object or material likely to transmit infectious diseases from one person to another, such as doorknobs, money, dishes. utensils, and furniture.

Notes: According to the Oxford English Dictionary, today's Good Word is an "incorrect back-formation" from fomites, a plural noun. Actually, it is a perfect back-formation. Back-formations are based on misanalysis of words. Peas was a mass noun in Middle English; pea was back-formed from it. The Latin singular was fomes, which was used in English only a few times in the 17th century.

In Play: Anything we touch that can hold a bacterium or virus is a fomite: "Many viral infections are not spread by fomites but by via the air we breathe." That does not include the coronavirus: "The coronavirus seems to spread via fomites and as aerosols."

Word History: Today's Good Word is a back-formation from New Latin fomites, the plural of Latin fomes "tinder, kindling", a noun derived from fovere "to warm". Fomes also underlies fomentum "poultice", whence English foment, a different way of warming things up. Latin inherited this word from PIE dhegwh-/ dhogwh- "to burn, warm", which also produced Sanskrit dahati "burns", Russian žgu "I burn", Lithuanian degti "to burn", and Slovenian žgati "to burn". (Today's Good Word comes to us courtesy of Sue Gold of Westtown School. We hope she doesn't touch a fomite with the coronavirus on it.)

Dr. Goodword,

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