When I was a journalist writing about healthcare and medicine I picked up a lot of medical terminology. Last week, though, I encountered a word I’d somehow never learned: fomites.
Even if parents feel comfortable sending their kids back to school as early as July/August (and many do not), my sense is that teachers are freaking out about the idea of spending all day with our adorable fomites. #schoolsreopening— Rebecca Bird Grigsby (@danceswithkids) May 4, 2020
The Online Etymology Dictionary defines fomites as “inanimate objects that, when contaminated with or exposed to infectious agents, can retain and transfer the disease,” so technically speaking Rebecca’s usage is inaccurate. (When you’re referring to children, vectors or carriers is a better choice.) Still, I thank Rebecca for the opportunity to chase down the history and etymology of this interesting and pertinent word.
Fomites is the Latin plural of fomes, which means “kindling wood” or “tinder”; it’s related to foment and fever. Fomes and fomites were first used in the medical sense by the 16th-century Italian polymath Girolamo Fracastoro, in an essay on contagion published in 1546: “I call fomites [from the Latin fomes, meaning ‘tinder’] such things as clothes, linen, etc., which although not themselves corrupt, can nevertheless foster the essential seeds of the contagion and thus cause infection.” The etymology dictionary notes that the “classically incorrect back-formed singular fomite is attested from 1859.” Incorrect it may be, but fomite is now to be found virtually everywhere.
How to pronounce fomites? I listened to a bunch of recordings, and concluded that … it depends. Merriam-Webster says the singular fomite (on which it casts zero aspersions) is pronounced ˈfō-ˌmīt (rhymes with “grow light”), and that fomites can be either ˈfō-ˌmīts (rhymes with “grow lights”) or fä-mə-ˌtēz (rhymes with “vomit-ease”). The Oxford English Dictionary prefers the latter pronunciation.
Unsurprisingly, fomites are a hot topic in discussions of the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19. (Which makes my prior ignorance of the word even more embarrassing.) The Centers for Disease Control website says “transmission of coronavirus occurs much more commonly through respiratory droplets than through fomites.” But a guide published by Johns Hopkins University and updated on May 6 says that transmission occurs “by respiratory droplets and fomites,” and doesn’t mention which mode is more common. Maybe researchers are still figuring it out.
Source: BMC Infectious Diseases
Here’s a dramatic representation (h/t Rochelle Kopp).
NHK conducted an experiment to see how germs spread at a cruise buffet.— Spoon & Tamago (@Johnny_suputama) May 8, 2020
They applied fluorescent paint to the hands of 1 person and then had a group of 10 people dine.
In 30 min the paint had transferred to every individual and was on the faces of 3.
That’s pretty alarming, so I’ll end on a slightly more upbeat note. Remember Girolamo Fracastoro, who came up with fomes almost 500 years ago? He was quite the Renaissance man: a physician, poet, and scholar in mathematics, geography, and astronomy. Fomes and fomites weren’t his only contributions to medical lingo: In an epic poem, published in 1530, he coined syphilis, taking it from the legend of a shepherd called Syphilus “who had purportedly gotten the illness as a punishment for defying the gods.” Long before the development of germ theory, 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 honor of his work in astronomy, the lunar crater Fracastorius is named after him.
UPDATE: Thanks to Martha Barnette for reminding me about this scene from Contagion (2011) in which Kate Winslett explains fomites (and pronounces the word to rhyme with grow lights). I saw the movie when it was originally released but had completely forgotten the scene.
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