Word of the Day: Fomites

Many diseases are spread by direct contact, but others, such as colds and influenza are spread indirectly, through droplets in the air (aerosols) or by germs left on surfaces or objects that the sick person has touched. The latter objects are called “fomites” (rhymes with “cavities”). At present scientists debate whether the flu actually spreads this way. The article “Transmission of Influenza Virus via Aerosols and Fomites in the Guinea Pig Model” finds that flu is transmitted mostly through air droplets.

On the other hand, this article claims that flu virus can remain contagious for 48 hours on bank notes, especially when mixed with “nasopharyngeal secretions of naturally infected children” (i.e., snot). Bottom line: Around flu, it’s a good idea to cover your face and an even better idea to cover your kids’ faces. But wearing gloves might be going a little too far.

Linguistic note: “fomites” comes from Latin, where it is the plural of the word “fomes” (kindling). However, most doctors don’t know Latin, so they mistakenly created a new singular form: “fomite” (rhymes with “termite”). This is one case where it’s better to be clear than correct. Because “Fomes” is also the name for a fungus that grows on trees, the newly invented word “fomite” actually avoids confusion.

Today’s Word of the Day was Brought to You By:

Dana Mackenzie

Check out his book, “The Universe in Zero Words,” at