- Paul Anthony Jones
(n.) an object or surface that can transmit a contaminant
We need to talk about fomites. It’s been that kind of year.
The events of 2020 have spiked interest in a host (no pun intended) of medical jargon, leading to terms like R-rate, epidemiology, contact tracing, super-spreaders, incubation period and even zoönosis leaping from the pages of medical journals and into tweets, news reports, and everyday mask-muffled conversations. It’s for good reason that Merriam-Webster have just named pandemic as their Word of the Year: searches for it increased more than 115,000% in March alone. But one word that’s prompted perhaps more linguistic debate than any other in 2020’s Dictionary of Covidese is fomites.
Fomites are objects and surfaces that can act to spread a contaminant through direct contact. In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, there was much discussion about the likes of cash machines, shopping baskets, petrol-pump handles and even the lids of takeout coffee cups harbouring the coronavirus infection, and many of these were added to the list of inanimate objects—like door handles and staircase handrails—that were best avoided.
But if you’re thinking that the handle of your shopping trolley is one fomite and the button of your nearest pedestrian crossing is another fomite, then think again. Strictly speaking, the word fomite kinda doesn’t really exist. And, for that matter, there’s a good chance you’ve been pronouncing fomites wrong all the way through this blog.
Fomites is Latin in origin; despite appearances, it’s pronounced “foh-mi-teez”, rhyming with antifreeze, not excites. Etymologically, it’s the plural form of the Latin word fomes, which—in the sense of an object that has the ability to spread something dangerous more widely—was actually a Latin word for tinder or kindling.
So the buttons of your local cashpoint are one fomes, and the door of your local cornershop is another fomes—not a fomite. It’s just the mind-bending way in which Latin pluralized its nouns that leads to fomes becoming fomites in its plural form, and fooling us unsuspecting English speakers into thinking that fomites was the plural of the nonexistent fomite along the way.
Interesting, no? Well, it’s about to get a bit more interesting if you like this sort of thing, because despite the fact that fomite kinda isn’t really a word, enough people have mistakenly used it this year that now—well, it kinda is.
Rule No. 1 of writing a dictionary is merely to record the words being used in a language, not police what people should and shouldn’t be doing with them. So despite it being erroneously formed, fomite has turned up enough times in our language this year that our dictionaries are having to take notice of it: you’ll now find it listed as a main entry in Merriam-Webster, Dictionary.com, and Collins Online.
Pedants and prescriptivists alike might tell you that this mark of legitimization for a word that shouldn’t really exist is not to be welcomed, and puts fomite squarely in the same ballpark as the likes of octopi and irregardless. These are the kinds of words that rankle language purists: octopus is of Greek not Latin origin, so its classically-informed plural should really be octopodes not octopi, while if regardless already means ‘not paying regard to’, then there’s really no reason to slap a prefix onto the front of it and use irregardless to mean precisely the same thing. Likewise, if fomites is the plural of fomes, then the use of fomite should not be encouraged.
The problem with drawing red lines through words created in error like this is that eventually you’d have to start expunging a lot more words than you probably realise—including a lot of words we’ve lived with for a very long time, and that you probably don’t have a problem with.
Words created in error are absolutely nothing new, and if we’re going to start striking them from the language then we’d have to say goodbye to the likes of syllabus, apron, aitchbone, azure, newt, gravy, zenith, notch, and even Scandinavia, Madagascar and Scotland’s Grampian mountains. There’s even a fair argument to say we should get rid of Cinderella’s glass slipper and replace it with a squirrel-fur one.
So is fomite a word? Irregardless of how it was created, yes it is: it’s a string of speech sounds, represented by the letters of our writing system, that together carry a meaning. Whether you feel comfortable using it or not, is up to you.