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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Monday, July 27, 2020

Don't touch that... (whatever)! Fomite

Remember when the object pictured above didn't strike dread into our hearts and cause us to go rushing for the nearest Lysol wipe? Remember when the vocabulary of infectious diseases didn't come trippingly off our tongues?

You may think this is an ordinary doorknob, but you may also have come to learn that in the language of infectious diseases it is potentially a fomite (pronounced FOAM ite), a surface covered with infectious material transmissible from it to our hands and from there to our mucous membranes.

This word has an interesting history, as it is an example of back-formation. Back-formation,

a word that is formed from an existing word which looks as though it is a derivative, typically by removal of a suffix (e.g., laze from lazy and edit from editor)

is a perfectly legitimate and quite common method of word formation. For instance, "kidnapper" came first, and "kidnap" was a back formation from it.

So what's the story with fomite? Originally, when the word was first borrowed into English around the beginning of the 19th century, it was fomes (pronounced FOAM eez), the Latin word for "tinder", since it could "spark" an infection. The plural of fomes was fomites (pronounced FOAM itt eez). But by the end of the 19th century people had back-formed a new singular from this, fomite, and anglicized the pronunciation. I suspect that this was because the singular fomes was very rare indeed, and the word was encountered more in writing than in speech.

Many general and specialized medical dictionaries, still give the fomes/fomites listing, with fomites pronounced FOAM itt eez. Merriam-Webster, however, gives only fomite, with the FOAM ite pronunciation first and, for the plural, FOAM itt eez only as a variant pronunciation. Looking at current corpus evidence, it seems that singular fomite has completely eclipsed singular fomes.

For other examples of back-formation, see my posts about swashbuckling, windsurf, mentee and peddle.

Photo by elias on Unsplash


  1. What a great piece! I had been wondering about the backstory. Thank you.


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.